Aniello: Rough Night (2017)
Rough Night is Lucia Aniello’s first feature after working on Broad City and Time Travelling Bong, and it’s one of the best crude thirty-something films that have become so popular in recent years. In some ways, these films, which include Bachelorette and How to Be Single, have represented a bit of a shift in features aimed at a younger, single, female demographic, often seeking to pair romantic comedy cues with a milieu in which marriage is no longer a horizon of aspiration. In the process, these films tend to splice the traditional romcom with other genres that sit awkwardly or abrasively alongside it, or at least to create genre hybrids that are no longer exactly romcom in their style and address. True to that lineage, Rough Night is more of a suspense comedy than a straight comedy, but whereas suspense-comedies often don’t do either genre particularly well, Aniello nails both. Denouements are often the most underwhelming and disappointing parts of suspense comedy, or action comedy, while it’s becoming more and more common for straight comedies – such as The Boss – to resort to action in their third act instead of building to a brilliant comic crescendo. Here, however, the finale is both the funniest and the most suspenseful part of the film, and almost seems to demand a sequel in either or both genres to see how these characters pan out.
All in all, then, Rough Night is probably the best suspense-comedy since Get Him To The Greek, and stands in relation to the recent wave of films about “female bromances” much as that film stood in relation to the first wave of millennial bromances. In part, that’s because of how deftly Aniello understands that suspense is a form of comedy, and comedy is a form of suspense, with the entire film revolving around one single act whose repercussions become funnier as they become more pressing, and more pressing as they become funnier. That said, what we’re presented with initially feels like jus another iteration of Bridesmaids, as a group of college friends gather ten years later for a pre-wedding weekend. Getting married is Jess Thayer, played by Scarlett Johansson, while the trip away to Miami has been organised by Alice (Jillian Bell), her extroverted and high-energy best friend, who is desperate for a good couple of nights as a reprieve from a dead-end job. Also joining them are Frankie (Ilana Glazer), a grassroots activist, and Blair (Zoe Kravitz), a corporate lawyer, who look set to resume their college relationship after it emerges that Blair has recently divorced her husband. Finally, Jess announces that a fifth friend will be joining them from outside the college circle – Pippa (Kate McKinnon), who she met while studying for a semester in Australia.
For the first twenty minutes or so of the film this all plays out much as you might expect, with the girls going from one nightclub to another, performing one outrageous dance move after another, and taking one provocative selfie after another. From there, however, Aniello makes a bit of a left turn, with Lucy deciding she just wants to go back to their rental for a quieter end to the night. When she arrives, however, she finds that her friends have organised a stripper to come and perform for them, and yet from the moment he appears this stripper seems off somehow, as if he is not quite a part of the film we have seen so far. Before we even have time to process this, however, a particularly enthusiastic lap dance from Joy sees him fall backwards, crack open his head, and die, channeling all the initial creepiness of his presence into the question of what the girls are going to do with him, since it’s clear from the moment that they instinctively move and clean up his body that they will be implicated in manslaughter, if not outright murder, if they call the cops.
What ensues plays out like a darker version of Weekend at Bernie’s, as the wedding party try to dispose of the body, or at least conceal the body, while consoling each other at the same time. While some critics have also described this as a “female” version of Very Bad Things, that didn’t really make sense to me, just because Very Bad Things is so misogynistic in its outlook that it seems to misunderstand the film to say that it can simply be feminised by substituting male characters with female ones. At the same time, Rough Night has a considerably daggier, more 80s vibe than Very Bad Things, even or especially at its most suspenseful moments, giving the impression that Aniello is interested in fusing comedy and thriller into a strange new genre hybrid rather than looking to generate shock in any kind of straightforward way. Key to that is the fact that the action of Rough Night never leaves this house, with Aniello evincing an almost classicist awareness of how gradually revealing all the different iterations of this one single space can intensify both the horror and the comedy, with the girls seeming to discover one new room or vestibule after another as they face each new twist and impediment in their efforts to dispose of the body.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that the action literally never leaves the house, but that the house itself has a certain elasticity that permits the group to leave it without ever making it feel as if they have managed to escape it. In part, that’s because the house backs onto a beach and is almost entirely walled with glass, meaning that their disposal of the body can be seen by anyone passing by, but also that even when they eventually spill out onto the beach they are still aware of the scene of the crime looming up above them in the night. These beach scenes are some of the most memorable in the film, partly because this is where the girls meet their neighbours, a swinging couple played by Demi Moore and Ty Burrell, whose own house becomes a kind of horizon for how far the wedding party can leave their own before being forced to return to its implications and decisions. On the one hand, Lea (Moore) and Pietro (Burrell) are continually trying to get the girls to come back to their house for a good old-fashioned orgy, but at the same time their house is surrounded by security cameras, meaning that the girls’ efforts to dispose of the body – and even some of the events that have taken place inside – may have been recorded by their creepy neighbours.
If the film elasticises the back of the house, then it does the same for the front, with a bevy of doorbell rings – pizza boy, policeman, rival stripper – making it feel as if the connection to the street is growing more porous with each scene. It’s only a matter of time, then, before the girls hit the highway with the corpse in tow, just as it’s only a matter of time before they’re forced to return to the house, offering us just enough of a glimpse of Miami to evoke a nightsprawl that is always bound to eventually take you back to where you ended up. Whereas 80s and 90s comedies often presented the American city at night as a space of endless possibilities and opportunities, I’ve noticed that recent comedies – such as the Horrible Bosses franchise – have adopted a more circumscribed and circumspect vision, as if to reflect a new age of austerity in which even the most romanticised nightscapes are incapable of offering the kinds of fleeting social mobility and collective communion that they once did. Nowhere has that been as articulated as eloquently as in Rough Night, where the relief of finally leaving the house and bursting out into the Miami sprawl makes it all the more comic, and suspenseful, when the girls are forced to return to their rental for what turns out to be the final showdown of the script.
For all that this might suggest an inevitable convergence of the film on domesticity and marriage, Rough Night also contains another night journey that totally offsets the kind of conclusion you might expect from a film of this kind. Pretty early on, we meet Jess’ fiancée, Peter, played by Paul W. Downs, and as the rough night progresses it’s almost inevitable that a couple of aborted phone calls and misplaced text messages lead him to wonder what is going on in Miami, and to eventually decide to drive down to reaffirm his love for Jess. In some ways, this is a classic romcom trope, but it’s denatured by the way in which Peter’s friends encourage him to take the drive (rather than, say, taking a flight to Miami the next morning). Invoking astronaut Lisa Kowak’s cross-country, diaper-clad ride to enact revenge on U.S. Air Force Captain Colleen Shipman, they divest Peter’s all-night drive of any heroic masculine agency and any heroic romantic agency in the same breath, even as Kowak’s gesture becomes a weird kind of horizon of charismatic female intensity that seems to render the events in Miami even more beyond the score of Peter’s power to intervene in them. As a result, when he does arrive to save the day it’s purely by accident, and even then renders him utterly oblivious to what has occurred in the process.
On its own terms, that would be a brilliant puncturing of the conservatism that often lurks around the fringes of these thirtysomething exercises in crudeness. Yet in another wonderful twist, Peter is placed in the simpering position usually reserved for women in films (even gross-out films) about impending weddings, sitting down with his mates for an evening of red wines and soft cheeses as Jess gets ready for her big weekend in Miami. For that reason, Jess never really has to accommodate to the role of a conventional female fiancée, just because Peter has already absorbed and internalised that role for her, and with only two kinds of men in the film – strippers and sex objects objects on the one hand, and cringey, saccharine husbands-to-be on the other – Aniello leaves space for a sentimental depiction of female friendship that just keeps on blooming, with Frankie and Blair actually rekindling their love for each other and hooking up at the end. Given that McKinnon herself is also queer, and that her performance of straightness is as pointedly contrived as her Australian accent, that means that over half of the group are detached from the horizon of marriage by the end. Add to that Jill’s chaotic, anarchic, freeform sensuality and it’s only really Jess who arrives at anything like a conventional romantic subject position, only for it to be all but absorbed by her husband anyway, leaving her free to bask in the glow of her friendships attachments right up the hidden scene at the end of the credits.
No doubt Johansson carries this with aplomb, in what often feels like a strange sequel to the trilogy of Her, Under the Skin and Lucy, so strangely does she post-humanise what’s expected of a thirtysomething female romantic lead. Yet it’s Bell and McKinnon who steal the show, which in its cosy televisual ambience often feels like the series Idiotsitter could or should have been, as Alice tries to manage everyone the whole time even as it becomes abundantly cleared that she’s really just managing how they manage her in turn, in a kind of continuously deferred gesture of self-regulation that’s responsible for no small part of the film’s comic signature. At the same time, McKinnon is brilliant, and does a brilliant impersonation of how Australian accents sound to American ears – partly Australian, to be sure, but also partly English, partly New Zealander and partly South African, a Commonwealth caricature that is quite trippy to listen to (especially for an Australian) and which garners her the nickname “Kiwi.” There’s also, inevitably, a little bit of Evil Angels in there, as passing for Australian is collapsed into passing criminal scrutiny and, finally, passing for straight, as if McKinnon’s accent merely personifies the last vestiges of heteronormativity that are ostensibly structuring how this group of friends constitutes itself. As a viewer watching the film in Sydney, that was the final touch to one of the best exercises in comic crudeness that I have seen in some time, as well of one of the deftest considerations of what is at stake in making a romantic comedy in this day and age.
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