(On Cable TV, December 2017) Nearly twenty years ago, I had the misfortune of catching a free advance screening of Very Bad Things, a film so vile in its black humour that even a certain competency of execution couldn’t shake the stomach-churning reprehensibility of its subject matter. I bring it up because, for a horrifying moment, Rough Night seemed to be headed in more or less the same distaff direction, as a group of bachelorettes accidentally kill what they think is a male stripper and then try to cover up the crime. Despite the combined comic talents and good looks of comediennes such as Scarlett Johansson, Kate McKinnon, Jillian Bell, Ilana Glazer and Zoë Kravitz, the film seems intent of revisiting the same awful places—how are you ever going to get laughs out of that situation, with a guy bleeding to death on the floor? Fortunately, writer/director Lucia Aniello isn’t quite so sadistic and misanthropic, and as Rough Night advances, it ends up clarifying that the death was actually preemptive self-defence and so we can all have a good laugh about it. Whew. I have no qualms blowing part of the film’s third act revelations in those circumstances, as knowing how it turns out may help a few viewers make it through the film’s middle section. It will help that the actors are doing what they do best—Jillian Bell is the flamboyant centre of attraction, while Kate McKinnon brings a recognizable dose of absurdity to an eccentric character. Scarlett Johansson chooses to play her character as the level-headed one. In smaller roles, Demi Moore and Ty Burrell show up a sex-crazed neighbours. While the film does suffer from the usual excesses of contemporary R-rated comedies (far too much profanity substituting for wit or actual comedy) and loses itself in scattered subplots that could have been tightened up, my opinion of Rough Night at the end is far more positive than it would have been at the dull start or the far-too-violent middle. As an entry in the “girl comedies can be R-rated” subgenre that sprung up in the wake of Bridesmaid, it’s passable but forgettable.
(On Cable TV, October 2017) It takes a long time for Fist Fight to even become likable. Part of it has to do with it ludicrous set-up, in which two stressed-out high school teachers in a bad school end up planning to fight each other after the last day of classes. In order to get there, you have to posit a school (and not even a particularly downtrodden school) in which both students and teachers seem to exist in a hellish post-apocalyptic bacchanalia. If anyone wondering when pedophilia would become a major comic point in a Hollywood comedy, well, wait no longer. (Also; if you were waiting for Christina Hendricks to flip that scene from Lost River and tell someone “You need a knife… You need to cut him from his forehead all the way down to his chin,” then Fist Fight is there for you.) Then there’s Charlie Day, whose comic persona is irritating at the best of times—putting him up against a stoic Ice Cube as the antagonist is asking for divided loyalties in which we wish for the so-called protagonist to be beaten down hard. It takes a long while, using the most basic emotional drivers, for us to actually start caring about the so-called hero. While Fist Fight does manage to compress its plot in a scant few hours, its innate meanness can be hard to take at times. Fortunately, a bunch of those problems resolve themselves by the time the third act comes by and the two teachers eventually do (after a few false starts and fake-outs) starting hitting each other. While the result isn’t high art, it may be enough to make you forgive the hard slog of the film’s first hour. Ice Cube, as usual, glides through the chaos with an intact persona. Jillian Bell makes the most of a reprehensible character, which is saying much considering that most of the characters are irremediable. Otherwise, there isn’t much here to remember. R-rated comedies tend to blur together these days and Fist Fight doesn’t escape the trend.