When the Ghostbusters reboot came out about a year ago, plenty of angry men who rankled at the idea of four women taking over spots traditionally held by male paranormal investigators insisted that it was not the female-centric approach to the movie that bothered them, but rather the creative laziness in making an all-lady Ghostbusters. But while truly inventive franchise plays are few and far between, gender-flipped remakes at least make a novel form of restitution. There’s been a gender imbalance in Hollywood for decades, so if you’re going to recycle old movies, having talented women spin them their own way is a pretty good strategy.
So what happens when you gender-flip a movie that isn’t just bad (more bad movies should probably be remade; it beats taking a second shot at classics) but downright vile? Peter Berg’s 1998 directorial debut Very Bad Things turns 20 next year, and it’s unlikely to be featured in anniversary pieces celebrating it, or even lobbying for its reappraisal. It’s a dark comedy about a bachelor party gone wrong; a guy accidentally kills a hooker and another guy convinces the whole group to chop up her body and bury it in the desert. Laughing yet? No? What if you add a lot of screaming, sweat, and the peerless comic tone of the guy who made Lone Survivor and at least 15 other movies where Mark Wahlberg grimly suffers through re-enactments of real-life tragedy?
Yet here is Lucia Aniello’s Rough Night, which is not an official, credited remake of the previous movie, but follows the same basic premise: Five friends head out for a bachelorette weekend of partying, do some cocaine, hire a stripper/escort, accidentally kill him, and debate whether reporting the incident is actually the best play for their lives.
As with the Ghostbusters redo, the characters aren’t especially close to the previously established types. Here Jess (Scarlett Johansson) is the relatively straight-laced one who’s in the middle of a campaign for state senate; Alice (Jillian Bell) is her excitable and clingy best friend; Blair (Zoe Kravitz) and Frankie (Ilana Glazer) are two more of their college friends who also used to date; and Pippa (Kate McKinnon) is the Australian friend Jess met studying abroad who’s never been integrated into her friend group. Aniello makes her feature directorial debut after working extensively on Glazer’s TV show Broad City, along with co-writer Paul W. Downs, who also plays Jess’s fiancé.
It’s Broad City that the movie’s tone lightly recalls – moreso than the Berg disaster, anyway. This is about intensely close friendships that have drifted apart, not the mechanics of disposing of a toned dead body (though there are some hijinks of that variety, too), and instead of an escalating series of murders, the crisis results in the uncomfortable discussion of how these friends have changed. It’s sillier and sloppier than a couple episodes of Broad City (and certainly less specific about its Miami setting than that show is about New York, though there are some satisfying digs at Florida), and the ground influence turns out to the most famous and outwardly glamorous member of the cast, Scarlett Johansson. She’s only doing a straight-man act so far as Glazer, McKinnon, and Bell are all weirder and goofier (as in Ghostbusters, McKinnon is basically a sight gag come to life), and I think I caught her reverting to a Woody Allen–style inflection, reminiscent of the way she enlivened his comedy Scoop. She and Bell get the majority of the emotional heavy lifting, and they’re adept at conveying a lopsided version of a bond that was nevertheless once forged in real closeness.
Their actual jokes are a little hit-and-miss. Aniello and Downs fill the corners of the movie with weirdly believable banter and asides that don’t veer off into improv tangents, but they also garnish some of their bigger moments with quasi-ironic restatements of those jokes. Half the comedies I see these days wind up chasing Anchorman’s “that really escalated!” scene at some point, and it’s much harder to nail down than it looks. There aren’t many set pieces (a few beginnings of scenes seem like they were abandoned at some point, either in writing or editing), and the farce runs in small circles. But Aniello has a strong sense of comic framing, whether she’s packing the five women into a small frame or letting them expand across the room of a borrowed Miami beach house as they try to work their way through an impossible situation.
Moreover, Rough Night doesn’t participate in a gross-off sweepstakes to prove its female characters can be just as lazily disgusting as their male equivalents. That’s not a swipe at ladies-behaving-badly comedies so much as bad comedies in general, the burden of which absolutely should be more evenly shared between sexes. There’s profanity and blood and sexual situations, but Aniello never seems self-satisfied about envelope-pushing. Downs has a subplot where he attempts to rush to his beloved’s rescue that a Hangover movie would use as a gauntlet of humiliation. Here, it has a zippy derangement that somehow doesn’t sour.
Very Bad Things, by contrast, started sour and then sat on the counter for a couple more hours. If that movie was even a little bit good, Rough Night could be accused of both co-opting it – making the tired point that women can also behave despicably and out of self-interest — and softening it, as it gives those characters more excuses and remorse. But as it happens, Very Bad Things is reprehensible, and so Rough Night needling at stuff like social media photos, rival friendships, and activist self-righteousness (a bit Glazer imports from her Broad City character) makes it an unusually nuanced corpse-slapstick comedy. The sharpest direct counterpoint to the old movie — which Aniello and Downs may not have even seen, if they’re lucky — is the parallel bachelor party where dudes sit around tasting wine, and even the most ridiculous schemes are presented with low-key gentility. Aniello can probably do something even better than this, but if she wants to fix any more misbegotten ’90s comedies, I’m all for it.