Female-Driven Films: Reception and Impact of ROUGH NIGHT

The movie Rough Night follows the reunion of five friends who get together to have a bachelorette party. Jess (Scarlett Johansson) is getting married, and a fun night away in Miami with her friends is exactly what she needs to take her focus off of a stressful state senate campaign. But the celebration is cut short when a freak accident ends with the entertainer the women hired died on their floor; by their hands. To say that they have a rough night is a pretty large understatement.

Not only does this movie feature a mainly female-cast, but it is also the directorial debut of Lucia Aniello a female filmmaker, settling this film in the category of female-driven films due to its involvement of women in the production of the movie. This film is female-driven too because every decision these women in the film drives the plot forward. Do they hide the body, or call the police? Women have a central role both on and off-screen, making this a female-driven film. Without these women, this movie would not exist!

And at the time of Rough Night’s release, the presence of a female-driven, “hard-R” rated comedy in the box office was all the industry could talk about. A large focus of articles from IndieWire, The Wrap and Deadline Hollywood actually focused on this, more-so than the actual content of the film itself and the stars in it. Several articles from IndieWire mention how exciting it is to see a unique comedy like this one after the “all too often” hiring practices of “Hollywood studios hir[ing] male directors to tell these women-led stories”.[1] Simply the fact that Aniello is “breaking into” the male-dominated genre as a debut filmmaker is newsworthy.[2] The language used helps to illustrate how she is shattering industry conventions of who is allowed to be a filmmaker for the genre.

Of course, not all articles spoke of the female-drivenness of the film in a positive way. Many articles found the movie to be a disappointment. An article from Deadline Hollywood suggests that women are “squandering their newly acquired muscle by recycling tired dude genres” and asking if “feminine sensibilities” are getting lost in today’s “franchise frenzy”.[3] Of course, this article then speaks of the “revival” of a women’s rights movement in Hollywood.[4] That still does not excuse the fact that a woman is being encouraged not to make a movie in a genre that normally, only males have had their hands on. The language used here also suggests that women are complicit in their oppression in the industry, because they are “squandering” their opportunities rather than taking “bold risks”.

The authenticity of the story is a rather large talking point, even if the story of women accidentally killing a sex worker seems a little farfetched. “If the film sounds wild,” says Kate Erbland for IndieWire, “it is, and it’s also uniquely boundary-busting”.[5] The language in these articles puts a large emphasis on the film’s uniqueness, even if elements of the plot had been seen before (and it had been, articles comparing Girl’s Trip and Rough Night – both about reunions of friends and partying hard – and also an article explaining Rough Night had a “Weekend at Bernie’s” like plot, circulated the industry).[6] Again comes the language praising the film for its ability to take a well-known genre and turn it on its head, not just in the production of the film but the actual storyline of the film itself. Some articles viewed Rough Night as less than clever of other feature films due to its content, but others praised the “raucous and raunchy ‘Rough Night’” for being exactly that![7]

Of course, the star-power of the film is also mentioned in every article – even suggesting the film belongs to Johansson in one of them rather than the director – as part of the expectation for the film to bring in a large audience, and earn the film some extra dough.[8]

But what all of these articles do not speak of, is how it “pushes the boundaries of a studio comedy” through its representation.[9] Matt Donnelly says that Rough Night “became the rare studio comedy that’s LGBT friendly” and has nothing but praise for how the film departs from traditional Hollywood depictions of those in the LGBT community and also the way in which gender roles are investigated through the film.[10] “None of the humor is at the expense of queer people and their dignity” and “their affection is not displayed to please men.”[11] The language used in this article in particular article places Rough Night against Hollywood conventions by stating what the film does not do in order to give it merit (while also explaining some of the scenes from the film itself). That sets a low bar for other films, but it illustrates how poorly queer people are treated normally in film, if they are included in it at all.

Critically, the film was received in a similar way. The fact that the film is female-driven still remains at the forefront of the discussion, but rather than focus on the feat of Sony by releasing this female directed comedy, the elements of the story and plot of the movie come into play. In reviews, her film is not being praised because she is a woman directing in a male-dominated space and genre as it had been in trade coverage, but because of the characters in the film and Aniello’s ability as a filmmaker. Aniello as a filmmaker is discussed in terms of her “gag-writing skills” in The Wrap.[12] That particular review does not seem to be too fond of her comedy but says that she and her co-writer “know their way around a gag”, so much so that the fact that Rough Night is a “hodgepodge of ideas left over from other films” is almost left to the wayside.[13]

The Kansas City star even uses other female-driven films to set Rough Night apart, saying that it is “tempting to lump” Rough Night into a group of films that “represent female-powered alternatives to customarily male commodities” like “‘The Hangover’…with women”; though it does not fit there.[14] The review quickly explains that Rough Night it is much more than a gender-bend of an already-known idea. It is a “murder-centric Bridesmaids”; the review using movies that have already been released to speak of this movie’s uniqueness in tone, even in contrast to other “female-driven” films.[15]

Now, that is not to say that the girl-power behind this film is always discussed positively. One review said that “some focus group somewhere” decided that the “girl version” of this genre movie had to have a “tear-filled scene where our heroines put down the bong long enough to talk about their feelings”.[16] Not only does this review contradict the other in terms of whether or not this is a “girl version” of a film, and not its own unique film, but the language used insults the film and its viewers. It degrades the character development and conflict resolution that happens in the movie, puts down the idea of female-driven films, and suggests that talking about feelings is inherently feminine and not human, all while demeaning the people who enjoyed that aspect of the movie.

The skills and star-power of the cast are also discussed in force. Johansson’s acting helps to “anchor the events [of the film] in authenticity”.[17] The language used here suggests that the acting is what helps to pull the film together while also stating that the plot was slightly outlandish. Not all reviews enjoyed the roles of these actresses, however, claiming that Johansson was “too often saddled into being the straight-woman” and that the other actresses were “stuck” playing their characters.[18] In both reviews, the fault of the film’s characters and the film itself does not lie on the cast, but the reasons why differ. Was it because they were “stuck” in their roles, or was it because the acting helped to pull this film together?

The performance of the film was not great, and Rough Night was expected to garner a higher response that it had. Of the articles that do discuss theatrical returns, Rough Night is “disappointing”, and it “sat a sad seventh at the box office charts”; the language here illustrating the contrast between the hope of financial return for the film, and what had actually happened.[19] The film only made 8 million dollars on opening weekend, and the film is viewed as a box-office bomb.[20]

Rough Night challenges Hollywood conventions for female-driven films. This female-driven film is actually written by a woman and features a mainly female ensemble, which challenges conventions in and of itself, but it is the characters of the film and the plot progression that truly challenge it. None of the women in this film were one-dimensional, as they often are in Hollywood. But what makes them stick out from other (even “female-driven” films) is the fact that they lead different lives, holding careers that in society are normally attributed to men. The film includes human decency by representing an LGBT character in a positive light, and no one woman lives a tragic story or is forced to go back to a life she dreads.

The film has not really had an impact on the industry (aside from, some people argue, illustrating how to not succeed at the box office) but it was a giant “first” for women and for Aniello. But due to the film’s poor reception, it does not seem like she will be getting another movie deal soon, and it seems like she is living a rough night of her own.

Notes

[1] Graham Winfrey, “How Female-Driven Comedies Perform at the Box Office,” IndieWire, June 13, 2017, https://www.indiewire.com/2017/06/rough-night-scarlett-johansson-15-most-successful-female-driven-comedies-box-office-1201841409/.

[2] Kate Erbland, “‘Rough Night’: Filmmaker Lucia Aniello Breaks Into the Male-Dominated R-Rated Comedy — Watch,” IndieWire, June 8, 2017, https://www.indiewire.com/2017/06/rough-night-lucia-aniello-r-rated-comedy-1201839339/.

[3] Peter Bart, “Peter Bart: Are Fabulous Female Directors Limited By Tired Dude Genres?,” Deadline Hollywood, June 22, 2017, https://deadline.com/2017/06/female-directors-trapped-rough-night-wonder-woman-commentary-1202118622/.

[4] Peter Bart, “Peter Bart: Are Fabulous Female Directors Limited By Tired Dude Genres?,” Deadline Hollywood, June 22, 2017, https://deadline.com/2017/06/female-directors-trapped-rough-night-wonder-woman-commentary-1202118622/.

[5] Erbland, “‘Rough Night’: Filmmaker Lucia Aniello Breaks Into the Male-Dominated R-Rated Comedy — Watch.”

[6] Jeremy Fuster, “Why ‘Girl’s Trip’ Succeeded Where ‘Rough Night’ and Other Adult Comedies Failed,” The Wrap, July 24, 2017, https://www.thewrap.com/how-did-girls-trip-succeed-where-rough-night-and-other-adult-comedies-failed/.

[7] Erbland, “‘Rough Night’: Filmmaker Lucia Aniello Breaks Into the Male-Dominated R-Rated Comedy — Watch.”

[8] Matt Donnelly, “How Scarlett Johansson’s ‘Rough Night’ Became the Rare Studio Comedy That’s LGBT-Friendly,” The Wrap, June 16, 2017, https://www.thewrap.com/rough-night-lucia-aniello-lgbt-friendly/.

[9] Donnelly, “How Scarlett Johansson’s ‘Rough Night’ Became the Rare Studio Comedy That’s LGBT-Friendly.”

[10] Donnelly, “How Scarlett Johansson’s ‘Rough Night’ Became the Rare Studio Comedy That’s LGBT-Friendly.”

[11] Donnelly, “How Scarlett Johansson’s ‘Rough Night’ Became the Rare Studio Comedy That’s LGBT-Friendly.”

[12] Alonso Duralde, “‘Rough Night’ Review: Scarlett Johansson and Friends Have a Funny, Bumpy Ride,” The Wrap, June 14, 2017 https://www.thewrap.com/rough-night-review-scarlett-johansson-kate-mckinnon/.

[13] Duralde, “‘Rough Night’ Review: Scarlett Johansson and Friends Have a Funny, Bumpy Ride.”

[14] Jon Niccum, “Scarlett Johansson, Kate McKinnon and cast mates know how to party in ‘Rough Night’,” Kansas City Star, June 15, 2017, https://www.kansascity.com/entertainment/movies-news-reviews/article156353394.html.

[15] Niccum, “Scarlett Johansson, Kate McKinnon and cast mates know how to party in ‘Rough Night’.”

[16] Niccum, “Scarlett Johansson, Kate McKinnon and cast mates know how to party in ‘Rough Night’.”

[17]  Niccum, “Scarlett Johansson, Kate McKinnon and cast mates know how to party in ‘Rough Night’.”

[18] Duralde, “‘Rough Night’ Review: Scarlett Johansson and Friends Have a Funny, Bumpy Ride.”

[19] Bart, “Peter Bart: Are Fabulous Female Directors Limited By Tired Dude Genres?”; Fuster, “Why ‘Girl’s Trip’ Succeeded Where ‘Rough Night’ and Other Adult Comedies Failed.”

[20] Fuster, “Why ‘Girl’s Trip’ Succeeded Where ‘Rough Night’ and Other Adult Comedies Failed.”