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"Rough Night" and the State of Comedy

by Eric Blume

My assignment for TFE was a review of the movie Rough Night. But since I was not raised in a barn, nor raised by wolves, my mother once told me if you can’t find something nice to say, don’t say anything at all. So we’ll keep it short on Rough Night itself.  It’s actually depressing how bad this movie is, a twist on a rather good mainstream movie called Very Bad Things, back in the Cameron Diaz days of 1998.  That Peter Berg film had a bit of an edge as it followed several guy friends on a bachelor party who find themselves in a dead hooker situation.  Rough Night is the distaff version of this tale, but the inept script, bad performances, and bland direction make it a tough sit.  The film’s five actresses (Scarlett Johansson, Kate McKinnon, Zoe Kravitz, Jillian Bell, and Ilana Glazer) are winning, talented ladies and deserved a far better vehicle.

Sitting through Rough Night your mind may wander, as did mine, to the state of mainstream comedy in the cinema these days...

Throughout the 90s and Aughts, tons of mainstream comedies were released, several per month on occasion.  Some were huge box office smashes designed to be huge box office smashes (The Hangover, Meet the Fockers, Bruce Almighty, etc.), but there were many that performed in the $80-$170 million range (The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Step Brothers, Pineapple Express type group) and others that performed less well but become minor classics (Austin Powers, Anchorman, etc.).  We had continual comedy films from the Apatow camp, Ben Stiller and friends, the Adam Sandler and Jim Carrey brands, etc.  There were also a slew of romantic comedies, teen sex comedies, and spoof movies all on a fairly regular rotating basis.

The romantic comedy is essentially a dead genre at the moment.  That’s temporary, surely, but now that Julia, Reese, and Sandy have moved on to other enterprises, nobody has been there to inherit the 'America's Sweetheart' crown.  Is there even an actress around who’s a possibility?  While that genre isn’t a favorite for many cineastes, it deservers more respect. It takes an incredible screen magnetism  to make those films work.

Even the biggest comedy stars from the last decade have been sadly absent lately.  We were formerly treated to a series of movies that combined Will Ferrell, Steve Carrell, Paul Rudd, Seth Rogen, Jason Segel, and others over and over again for about a decade.  Some of the projects were wonderful and inspired, while others were labored and limited, but they churned out one after the other in the Old Hollywood, workmanlike style, because people wanted to see them.  Rogen is the one guy still in the game annually (most recently Neighbors 2, The Night Before, The Interview); the others are MIA.

Perhaps Rough Night should serve as a reminder that Hollywood needs to speed up instead of staying ten years behind the times. Rough Night and Bad Moms are the kinds of comedies that were hits a decade or two ago, simply repackaged with all-female casts.  Rough Night, which has been continually compared with the 80s sleeper hit Weekend at Bernies, could easily star the guys mentioned above, as Bad Moms could easily feature any of those three gentlemen as well.  Shouldn't new female comedies be aiming for their own thing?

The larger problem may be the cinematic comedy in general. We don't see as many now.  If you remove the humorous films that ultimately belong to another genre (Guardians of the Galaxy, Lego Batman Movie, etc.), we have very few comedy releases so far:  Baywatch.  Snatched.  Fist Fight.  CHiPS.  How to Be a Latin Lover.  Any others? 

It begs the question:  do people not want to pay to see comedy films these days?  Or are they simply fatigued with the comedy stars and formulas of the recent past, and waiting for a fresh wave?  

You know the old saying 'dying is easy, comedy is hard.' Mainstream comedies are incredibly difficult to make.  Paul Feig is probably the best comedy movie director we have right now:  Bridesmaids, The Heat, and Spy all delivered beautifully.  He’s smart enough to allow every actor in those movies to be funny, so his films never have to rely too heavily on any one actor, and the laughs aren't as forced.  They play light and generous.  But even his Ghostbusters reboot didn’t quite work:  again, a movie that worked thirty years ago with all men.

What can rescue comedy at the multiplex? Are there directors or stars or movements that you think could help revive them?

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Reader Comments (36)

Just saw this, and while I don't think it was *bad*, it was underwhelming. It also has that scene EVERY modern comedy has where the characters discuss the Concept of Friendship, and just drag any tiny bit of character subtext into broad daylight. It usually happens at the 70 minute mark and it's exhausting.

June 18, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterDave S.

Paul Feig is the best American comedy director right now, but Ghostbusters is definitely a property that plays to his weaknesses, and there are three main problems with it. 1. They have assigned an improv director (he's probably the best one of those, but he is still that) to an inherently plot oriented franchise. 2. In a problem clarified by the extended cut, an obvious lack of trust in using the central villain's personality in ways that are both comedic and genuine. If someone with the villain's implied personality is forcing people to dance, it should be to something like Take Me to Church, because that would be both A: an actual joke and B: A moment that fits his personality, even if you don't find it funny. 3. The morality of the heroes. Rooting for the 1984 Ghostbusters in the final climactic scene is rooting for, relative, paragons. Rooting for the 2016 Ghostbusters for their overblown 2016 action movie climax is kind of like rooting for Otho.

June 18, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

Comedy is a very hard genre and it seems to have become a lost art at least at the movies.

June 18, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJaragon

Two flops in a row for Scarlett. Whoever is managing her career should be fired. Her days as an A-lister are numbered.

June 18, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterMarie

Interesting timing for this piece considering the insanely good buzz for the upcoming Big Sick.

June 18, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterTr

I just got back from seeing this and liked it quite a bit more than you, though I do think it seriously undersold some of its best jokes. But absolute agree that we're in a big comedy lull lately - studios really aren't marketing them well even when they're good.

June 18, 2017 | Registered CommenterChris Feil

To your point, I would pay for a romantic comedy with Emma Stone, but I can't think of a male to pair her with besides Ryan Gosling. Passengers was billed as a romantic comedy in space, but that did not fly as expected. I blame the super hero focus - it has essentially ruined every other genre, including comedy and drama. Downey, Paltrow, Renner, Johansson ... they are of good in other projects. Call me old fashioned, but I miss the days when stars like Redford, Fonda, Streep, DeNiro, Ford, etc. were supported by the industry to make good movies.

June 18, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterTom Ford

Sorry, meant "they are not good in other projects"

June 18, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterTom Ford

I think more comedies need to throw away the screenwriting guides, especially when it comes to structure. An offshoot of Apatow-style improv is some really standardized outlines/arcs that these films build their riffs around, and the mandated marks are often hit too hard. (Please, please no more "we had a fight/sorry, let's never fight again" scenes.) Part of why "Anchorman" hit so big was it's absurdist streak and unpredictability, and I think the same is true of a lot of popular comedy podcasts.

Also, how about no more movies called "Bad (Noun)"? No more slow-mo montages of adults doing crazy things while drinking or otherwise inebriated. Wild parties in modern comedies all look the same.

June 18, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterDave S.

Agree. Surprise is needed. The Martian and Get Out arguably worked because of their comedy elements.

June 18, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterTom Ford

"While that genre isn’t a favorite for many cineastes, it deservers more respect. It takes an incredible screen magnetism to make those films work."

So basically comedy needs Jennifer Lawence.

June 18, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterbeyaccount

The international box office is more important to studios than ever, and comedy doesn't always translate well across cultures (what American audiences find funny isn't always what Chinese audiences find funny, for example). So I'm guessing that's why Hollywood's shied away from big comedies - if it won't play well overseas, it doesn't get made, period. A lot of the recent films mentioned in the article are tied to an existing property, goosed up with action setpieces, relatively cheap (ideally lowering the bar for international returns), or feature international stars (How to Be a Latin Lover, for example) that will attract audiences outside the US.

I'm not sure what the "solution" to this would be: make comedies less expensive? Rely on indie comedy to provide the big laughs (a la The Big Sick, to cite a well-received recent film)? I definitely don't want to imply a nationalist approach to cinema, so maybe more multicultural comedies that appeal to more diverse audiences?

June 19, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJason H.

Maybe I'm on crack cuz I'm currently exhausted on vacation, but I just got back from it and I thought it was a lot better than I expected it to be ... I had a really good time *shrug* lol

June 19, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterPhilip H.

Has Jennifer Lawrence ever led a comedy? Not sure that is a solution

June 19, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterWondering

I guess I'm the only one who loved the new Ghostbusters!

June 19, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterBrad

The problem of comedy is that Paul Feig IS probably the best director making comedy movies.
Edgar Wright and Adam McKay went to other genres, Nicholas Stroller and Judd Apatow are half the time doing televison things so he is all that we're left with and he is a bad director at that. Even if you like Bridesmaids (which i didn't) you can't help but see how lazy it is, direction-wise. This is a director that brings nothing to the table except being a tool to the actresses he's with, which is fine when you look at it for the actressess POV, but not much of a legacy as a director.

June 19, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterGeorgeT

Well, let's not pretend that better comedies were being made the last decade, or the decade before that. Actually good, not slapstick but witty and inventive comedy has died since the beginning of the 1980s.

June 19, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterAAA

Funny but I can't remember seeing any `Bradley Cooper's career is over' think-pieces after Aloha and Burnt. Didn't see any `Ryan Gosling needs a new agent' articles after Only God Forgives and Lost River. Or George Clooney after Monuments Men and Tomorrowland. Matt Damon with the trifecta of We Bought a Zoo, Elysium and Promised Land. In fact, pretty much any male star you can find has similar examples. But God forbid an actress has two goddam underperformers and it's time to close up shop.

June 19, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterDaniel23

GeorgeT: Wait, has Wright stopped making comedy? I know McKay has (his next three prospective projects are all dramas), but even if Baby Driver IS a drama, his supposed next project after that (Shadows) is a Dreamworks movie. And the other projects? Another prospective animated movie (Fortunately, The Milk), an Oliver Twist sequel (Dodge & Twist), what seems to be a disaster/slasher parody (Grasshopper Jungle) and something that's probably his version of the 21 Jump Street/Baywatch/CHiPS mini craze (Kolchak).

June 19, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

To me the real star of Rough Night was Demi Moore as the sexpot neighbor. Maybe I just missed her since the 90's :)

June 19, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterDAVID

I didn't watch Rough Night yet, but given the negative response of the movie, it begs the question: how a team (Lucia Aniello, Paul W Downs, Ilana Glazer) that brings the funny (and it feels fresh as well) everytime on a tv show bombs so hard on a film? I guess the studio wants the talent but it squanders it till it looses everything that makes it special. Did someone read the first draft of the script back on the black list?

June 19, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterr.m.

I think this post raises a fair question, generally - but is Rough Night clearly a comedy? I disliked it more than any recent movie I can remember because once the guy is killed it can't seem to decide what it is, tone-wise, and whatever it is, it doesn't put much life or commitment into it. The best parts of it are the always comedic parts (everything with Paul W. Downs, Kate McKinnon). Unfortunately, too much of the movie is something else.

June 19, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterScottC

I would have bought a ticket if they'd marketed this as a Demi Moore movie.

June 19, 2017 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordonuk

Besides Lucy, Scarlett has never been box office on her own. Even that was a CGI concept film.

June 19, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterDevon

"So basically comedy needs Jennifer Lawrence."

If only she were funny and talented and less obnoxious.

June 19, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterTess

I think Melissa McCarthy still has a lot of hits to come. I know her comedy vehicles have all performed inconsistently, but none of them have been outright bombs. And she still has a LOT of popular support, especially since her Sean Spicer/SNL impression.

And I'm hoping that now that she got Snatched out of her system, Amy Schumer can crank out another good comedy. Let's not forget that Trainwreck was a romantic comedy hit that also happened to pass the Bechdel test. Although looking at her upcoming projects on IMDB, she's not the writer for any of them. Tiny Fey seems to only do well when she writes her own material so I wonder if Schumer will be the same.

June 19, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterDJDeeJay

Y'all haters. I enjoyed the new Ghostbusters more than the original. Far from some kind of classic but it was funny and hella entertaining.

June 19, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterSteve_Man

DJ - totally agree. McCarthy is very consistent and Schumer has the goods. I do wonder with these writer/actresses why they don't stick to their own material though. It almost always is stronger than working on someone else's screenplay.

steve -- agreed.

Mark -- lol. that's the reason I still want to see it ;)

June 19, 2017 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

By no means am I a prude, but I wonder if part of it is people getting sick of R-rated raunchy stuff (at least when written poorly). Napoleon Dynamite and My Big Fat Greek Wedding were quirky films that were shocking in their successes.

June 19, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJakey

I'd only place Emma Stone as the next "Julia/Reese/Sandy" IT comedy girl, b/c she's the closest to actually doing it and succeeding (loved "Easy A" and "Crazy, Stupid, Love," both better than her Oscar win). If she's not the one and goes the serious "actress" route, all that's left is J-Law. Meh.

June 19, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterIan

I can't remember the last time I laughed hard and consistently at a comedy in theaters, honestly. Spy, maybe? McCarthy is easily the best comedic movie star currently working and is able to single-handedly carry films, even when those films are subpar (The Boss). McKinnon probably could, too, but she isn't there yet in terms of stardom; she needs to parlay a featured role into something bigger like McCarthy did with Bridesmaids.

But it seems that the most successful comedic screen actors are all on television now.

June 21, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterAustin

@Daniel23: well said.

June 22, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterCharlie

Daniel and Charlie--cosign. Scarlett will be just fine.

June 22, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

If Paul Feig is considered to be the best comedy director currently, it just goes to show you how far into the toilet mainstream comedies are.
Feig cannot direct a decent comedy to save his life. Spy might be the worst movie I've ever seen. I was one of the few movies that I walked out on it was so painfully unfunny and his Ghostbusters was an outright embarrassment on so many levels.

If you want to improve the quality of mainstream comedies, how about putting in some actual effort into the scripts, hiring actual talent, not relying on raunch humor to get by and have actual jokes with real cleverness, wit and creativity and quit walking on pins and needles afraid of offending people.

@DJDeejay: I wouldn't qualify Amy Schumer as anyone with any real comedic talent and Trainwreck is a movie that truly lived up to its title on many levels.

@Daniel23: Don't you dare play the gender card.
Nobody said that anyone's career is in trouble. It's saying that the genre is in trouble and nothing more. Did you even read this?

June 22, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterCelluloidFan35mm

@CelluloidFan35mm - did you ever watch Schumer's show? While the quality is inconsistent (as is true with every sketch show), there are some real gems that I think highlight her talent. One in particular that always stood out to me was her first-season sketch when she's on a date who reveals he has HIV. Brilliant writing and acting choices.

I thought Trainwreck was good but, as with so many comedies nowadays, would've been great had it been shorter and more tightly edited.

June 22, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterDJDeeJay

@DJDeeJay: After her movie and watching her stand-up, I didn't even bother watching that show. She's is not as talent or funny as people think she is.

June 22, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterCelluloidFan35mm

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