Why isn’t Rough Night, the new bridesmaids-on-a-tear comedy, funnier? Blame the patriarchy. (That’s a joke. Or is it?)
Rough Night has the pedigree of funny. It’s written by two of the team that write the divinely funny television series Broad City: Lucia Aniello, who also directs; and Paul Downs, who also co-stars as Peter, fiancé to bride-to-be Jess (Scarlett Johansson). Jess’s friends are played by funny women: Broad City star Ilana Glazer as Frankie, a wild-child lesbian protestor; comedian Jillian Bell as Alice, a chubby teacher who wants to be Jess’s bestie a little too much; SNL’s Kate McKinnon as Pippa, Jess’s hippie friend from her semester abroad in Australia; Zoe Kravitz as Blair, rich and perfect.
The premise is a classic: a bachelorette weekend in Miami gone wrong. But at the first crisis – an accident with a hunky stripper – the movie falls apart, and flounders to the end, because it doesn’t know what its funny is supposed to be.
Rough Night isn’t alone here. It and a fistful of other recent comedies starring women are freighted with the same humour-killing cultural anvil: Is there such a thing as “women’s comedy”? Should there be? Is it achieved by just popping women into roles formerly occupied by men, a la the Ghostbusters reboot? Is it hilarious to watch women prove they can be as raunchy as men, as in Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates, Trainwreck or Snatched? Is it enough to simply subvert established notions of what women “should” be, as in Bad Moms or How to Be Single?
Answering these questions is a struggle because comedy relies on tropes – shared, ingrained assumptions and ideas, which make us laugh by being conformed to or blasted apart. Comedies written, directed by and/or starring women are trying to invent new tropes. But tropes take a long time to imbed themselves in our storytelling. So Rough Night and her sisters are stuck in the middle: not exactly dude humour, not yet identifiably women’s humour, and as a result, not quite funny.
A couple of early moments in Rough Night bode well. Jess is a stressed-out politico running for local office. So when she and Peter recall that their greatest druggie experience was “the time we took Xanax and slept for 16 hours,” the joke lands, because stressed-out women everywhere can relate.
Ditto for the next bit: Jess lists all the tasks she needs to finish before she and Peter can have sex. Gazing at her with doe eyes, he coos, “I’m going to let you do all that, and I’ll go masturbate in the shower.”
“Really?” she replies, beaming. “You’re the best.”
The most consistently funny business involves Peter’s bachelor party, a sedate wine tasting where all the men are sensitive and give sound romantic advice. No surprise there: We all see what’s funny when a male trope is inverted.
Unfortunately, that’s pretty much it for any specific comedy in Rough Night. The rest of the film just tosses clichés around like a salad. There’s The Hangover segment – the bridal party does a little dance, snorts a little coke, and gets down tonight. There’s a Very Bad Things twist, the stripper accident, followed by a Weekend at Bernie’s steal. By the end, it turns into a thriller so lazy it doesn’t even wrap up its own plot about missing diamonds. You can feel the heavy hand of someone, possibly the studio machine, throwing in too many things to dress this thing up, with no singular vision respected – or perhaps the better word is “trusted.”
Comedy tropes only work if specific characters carry them out. In Rough Night, the most rounded character is Peter (his sensitive-guy shtick pays off in the film’s one truly surprising sequence, at a gas station, which I won’t spoil). The women, alas, are types: the chubby one is horny, the pretty one is secretly sad, etc.
In real life, people are friends because they have things in common. In the best comedies, the friends don’t have to be delineated as types – they can just be people. In Superbad, both Michael Cera and Jonah Hill are shy. In Horrible Bosses, all three leads are sarcastic fast talkers. The humour comes from the relationship, not the archetype.
A few comedies starring women have pulled this off: Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion; the relationship between Kristen Wiig and Maya Rudolph in Bridesmaids; the rivalry between Melissa McCarthy and Rose Byrne in Spy; and the women in the (criminally underseen) black comedy Bachelorette, which has the courage to unite its characters in their cruelty. And of course, Broad City itself, where so much of the funny comes from how devoted Abbi and Ilana are to one another.
But contemporary women’s comedies aren’t yet common enough – or again, their backers don’t trust them enough – that the women in them can afford not to be broadly differentiated. Even the successful, iconic stars Amy Poehler and Tina Fey, who clearly have a similar voice, contorted themselves into playing opposites in Sisters and Baby Mama. Which is why those movies felt forced, and flailed.
Tropes are necessary for comedy. But tropes alone aren’t funny. What’s funny is a singular point of view that rises up to show us what’s absurd about our embedded expectations. Until more movies starring women are allowed to be truly audacious, we’re in for a lot of rough nights at the cinema.
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