Warning: Spoilers Ahead
Back in 1998, Peter Berg was primarily known as a television actor on David E. Kelley’s hospital drama Chicago Hope. Although premiering the day before NBC’s ER, Chicago Hope was seen as the lesser of the two shows, scoring fewer than half the viewers of its George Clooney-led counterpart. Although Berg did not start with the show (he had started the first season as a recurring guest), he was promoted to the main cast in the second season. In 1997, Berg also found some recognition as the corrupt Police Officer Joey Randone in the Sylvester Stallone vehicle Cop Land. At the time, few people would guess the directorial darkness he had brewing beneath the surface.
His directorial debut, Very Bad Things, was a jet black comedy that came out of left field. Starring Jon Favreau (then-star of Swingers and PCU), Cameron Diaz (There’s Something About Mary), Jeremy Piven (PCU and Judgment Night), Daniel Stern (City Slickers, Home Alone), Leland Orser (bit parts in Se7en and Escape From L.A.) and led by Christian Slater (Interview with the Vampire, True Romance), this Hollywood dark comedy landed in theaters with little fanfare amid the sound of film critics cringing in disgust. Dead bodies and unsympathetic characters defined the film that Roger Ebert descibed as “[not] a bad movie, just a reprehensible one.” Even the critics who liked it described the film as “superbly nasty” and “disgusting.” So, it’s with a bit of shock that this movie would have its premise stolen in this year’s gender-flipped “not a remake” Rough Night.
At the beginning of Very Bad Things, mild-mannered finance guy Kyle Fisher (Favreau) is a week away from marrying Laura (Diaz), a control freak whose primary goals are to have a perfectly lush wedding and a rich man to help take care of things. In the weekend before their wedding, Kyle and his wedding party pop over to Las Vegas for a drug-fueled bachelor’s weekend complete with gambling and hotel strippers, all arranged by the best man Robert Boyd (Slater). Fueled by drugs and alcohol, their fun comes to a screeching halt when Michael (Piven) accidentally kills the stripper he’s fucking (Kobe Tai) by slamming her head onto a coat hook in the bathroom. That’s when the real fun of the movie kicks into high gear.
The remainder of Very Bad Things is a moralizing misanthropic movie that makes much hash out of the paranoid guilt the men feel after killing then dismembering two bodies and leaving them in the desert. Boyd, a graduate of various self-help programs, attempts to lead the gang through the darkness using insults, equivocation, and murder. Make no mistake, Berg (who also wrote the film) holds nothing but contempt for all of the characters in this film, including the passive Fisher and Moore who don’t actually kill anybody but go along with the ride for their own self-serving reasons. The lesson: even if they didn’t kill anybody, everybody’s guilty.
Rough Night begins in much the same fashion. Jessica Thayer (Scarlett Johansson) is running for Senate while getting married to her sweet pushover fiance Peter (Paul W. Downs). In order to celebrate, she gathers her three best friends from college – Alice (Jillian Bell), Frankie (Ilana Glazer), and Blair (Zoë Kravitz) – and her Australian bestie, Pippa (Kate McKinnon), to celebrate with a Bachelorette’s Weekend in Miami. After getting drunk and high at a bar, Frankie hires a stripper for the party through an app that identifies the men through dick pics. When a hot guy arrives and is mistaken for the hired stripper, an overexcited Alice tackles him, slamming his head on the corner of the fireplace and killing him.
Director Lucia Aniello (Broad City), who co-wrote the screenplay with her boyfriend Paul W. Downs (Trey from Broad City), chooses not to agonize over the morality of the situation – that of accidentally killing an innocent stripper – and decides to take a far safer route that bonds the leading women while denigrating most of the men in the situation. The meat of Rough Night is the zany antics and emotional connections of the five women trying to dispose of a body and any evidence of the murder, which includes forcing Blair to have sex with the older swingers next door.
From the beginning, it’s fairly obvious that Aniello and Downs are making a “reverse sexism” film that strives to point out the sexism of previous films through gender-flipping while escalating the sexist traits of the films it is commenting on (a la 2016’s Ghostbusters remake). For example: although VBT‘s Laura was a hardened character, she still spent Kyle’s bachelor weekend holding down the fort and rearranging the chairs for the wedding. Rough Night‘s Peter has his own bachelor party that includes a wine tasting and a quiet night with the boys. Through this contrast, Rough Night is pointing out the sexism of keeping a woman at home while the boys go out to party.
After the murder, Rough Night takes a different road for all of the characters, especially by turning Peter into a whiny effeminate worrywart; Peter is a completely different character than Very Bad Things‘ Laura. When the boys get back to town in Very Bad Things, the determined Laura has to assert her control over the situation in order to keep Kyle and the boys on task for the wedding even as they’re struggling with their guilt in secret. She yells, screams, cajoles, admonishes, and even commits a murder herself. As shown in the poster, she is Boyd’s counterpart; Kyle is replacing a control freak best friend with a control freak wife. Rough Night struggles to make these contrasts by making Alice and Jessica both dominating characters while turning Peter into the passive type. After the murder, Jessica makes a frantic broken call to Peter rambling about getting a stripper and worrying about the wedding that leads Peter to believe that she fell in love with the stripper and is calling the wedding off. To save her, he and his sewing circle of friends decide that Peter has to make a big crazy romantic gesture and drive to Miami wearing a bunch of diapers (a la the crazy astronaut lady). The comedy of this character stems from assigning Peter the effeminate traits usually associated with hysterical women.
In turn, Rough Night bends over backwards to justify both the murder and the bad behavior of the women by concocting a criminal backstory for the murdered Not A Stripper. Aniello and Downs strive to erase all of the guilt we would usually assign to most characters who gruesomely kill a human being. The stripper they kill in their estrogen-soaked ecstasy wasn’t actually the stripper they hired (the only picture they had of that stripper was a photo of his cock); this guy was actually one of three men who participated in a jewelry robbery and was supposed to use the party house (a usually empty vacation house owned by one of Jess’s rich donors) as a safe house until his partners arrived. The women don’t realize this until after the real stripper (Colton Haynes) arrives (who, when groping one of the women while dressed as a cop, is knocked out in self defense). They only make this realization in the final act when the dead guy’s two partners try kidnapping the women (now they too can be justifiably murdered).
If Rough Night spends its running time trying to absolve all guilt of the characters – the women call each other out on their bad social behaviors and then realize this is just the pain of growing older and the social cost of increased physical distance and growing responsibility – this really hits home in the differences between the final moments of Very Bad Things and Rough Night. One reinforces the idea that nothing in the movie was morally righteous and a cosmic justice comes to all; the other believes that these characters have engaged in righteous behavior and are justifiably rewarded for it.
In Very Bad Things, Laura kills Boyd just before the wedding, telling Fisher to stuff him in the toilet. For comedic effect, they forget the wedding rings in Boyd’s jacket, sending Moore (Orser) to retrieve them from the bloody not-quite-dead body. At the same time, the wedding is already imperfect as they could never reconcile the “chair situation” leaving the guests to sit on hard wooden chairs while the wedding parties are notably imbalanced since the groom’s side suffered so many deaths. After the wedding, after burying Boyd in the desert with the other bodies, Kyle and Moore are in a serious car accident leaving them both physically crippled. Very Bad Things closes with Laura cleaning up the bathroom while Kyle and Moore are trying to raise up their dead friend’s kids from their wheelchairs, leaving Laura to be a commoned housewife.
In Rough Night, the wedding plans face a last minute change to be conducted at a foam party in Miami, celebrated by the party revelers instead of family. This is seen as a positive change, pointing to a renewed friendship between the women and Jessica letting go of her controlling aloof behavior. Nobody is arrested for the murders, and Pippa even flaunts the events through a coded song at a senatorial event. Then the post-credits kicker: one night while hungry, Alice decides to make the penis pasta she had purchased but they never made, only to find the robber’s hidden diamonds from that night. She is cosmically rewarded for killing a Not-A-Stripper.
Although Rough Night is definitely “Not A Remake,” the situations in both films are so similar that one can’t help but wonder what the changes in morality portend. In the boy versions of the story (which also includes the very similar 1997 HBO drama Stag, featuring a similar non-wedding setup but ending with the death of the male protagonists), the initial murders are seen as complete injustices with the murderers getting their just desserts. As Boyd attempts to put it, “What we have here was not a good thing, but it was, under the circumstances, the smart play.” The men’s relationships are slowly torn apart by their guilt and complicity, leading the audience to morally judge them for their behaviors. But, in the girl version of the story, the director and writer excuse their bad behavior at every turn, and even turn the murder into an excuse for female bonding. Is this difference the result of modern times needing happy endings in all Hollywood movies, or could it be the result of misplaced feminism where any bad behavior by women is justified by the worse behavior of all the male characters?
From wherever the differences stem, the weird part is I felt dirtier watching Rough Night and fighting against the movie’s desired outcome. What would Rough Night have been like if it had been directed by a woman who isn’t afraid of embracing the dark side of the world? Why do we need to let main characters off the hook? Why shouldn’t we be judging these characters for going overboard and killing somebody before they even thought he could be a criminal? I’d totally understand the reverse stereotypes to make pointed comments on sexist tropes, if only Downs and Aniello had taken the movie to its naturally dark place and judged the women like the previous movies judged the men. Instead, we’re treated to sitcom-style morality where these one-off lead characters are meant to be beloved rather than loathed. I don’t quite get why, but there’s something wrong with that.