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'Rough Night' is like a rough draft of a hilarious comedy

How do you screw this up?
Rough Night
We wish a comedy with Zoe Kravitz, Ilana Glazer, Jillian Bell and Scarlett Johansson was funnier than "Rough Night." Credit: Sony

‘Rough Night’
Director:
Lucia Aniello
Stars: Scarlett Johansson, Jillian Bell
Rating: R
2 (out of 5) Globes

If you build it, they will come. And if you cast five funny women in a drug-soaked farce involving a dead body, it will be funny. Neither of these statements is true. “Rough Night” rolls into multiplexes with the swagger of a gambler entering a casino convinced they will beat the house. But the house indeed always wins. This is an unpopular opinion, but we like to think of “The Hangover” as a “theoretical comedy”: Everything that happens in it seems funny — in theory. And yet, objectively genius end credits aside, actual, out-loud laughs are (for us, anyway) few and far between. Since “Rough Night” has been sold as the latest “‘The Hangover,’ but with girls!”, it’s only appropriate that it feature countless dead patches, where things that should produce chuckles simply do not.

Technically, “Rough Night” isn’t a gender-switched “The Hangover”; it’s an all-female “Very Bad Things,” a very bad movie from 1998 in which a wild bachelor party ends with a dead stripper. “Rough Night” — which has the same set-up but a very different follow-through — is considerably less unpleasant, perhaps because women tend to be less crappy than men. The bad guys this time aren’t even bad girls: They’re a clan of nice women, old college friends who’ve reunited in Miami to ring in the wedding of Jess (Scarlett Johansson), an aspiring politician losing in the polls to an Anthony Weiner type. This three-years-late gag plays like a bad omen — our first warning that even people talented as Jillian Bell, Kate McKinnon, Ilana Glazer and Zoe Kravitz may not be bringing their A-game.

“Rough Night” winds up having the same problem as last year’s almost-good “Bad Moms”: it’s not crazy enough. Even when our ladies score coke, all they do is act hyper. When their stripper arrives and he’s accidentally offed, their incompetence at the crime scene leads them to agree to discard the body, which they handle badly as well.

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It all sounds like the makings of a delightful comedy, but “Rough Night” plays like a rough draft for a comedy, in which everyone showed up assuming they’d kill it but let their inflated confidence go to their head. The writing is sloppy and lazy, and this transgressive comedy includes regressive digs at creepy swingers (Demi Moore and Ty Burrell, who are at least game), plus a bit where McKinnon makes out with the corpse — a scene that lacks the relative inspiration of “Weekend at Bernie’s.” Eventually the film gives up and out comes the sentimental streak and happy ending for five privileged women who got away with murder.

Like most modern comedies, “Rough Night” assumes ad-libbing will save the day. But all that happens is five fine performers are stranded in a beach house with little to do but shriek and shout and occasionally light out on some anticlimactic misadventure. Even McKinnon seems to be having an off-day, falling back on an Australian accent and a couple Vegemite jokes. The exception is Zoe Kravitz, one of two non-pro-comics. She doesn’t have much to do, but she exudes stealth comic timing, able to upstage her flailing costars with the same coolness with which George Harrison quietly stole the Beatles movies.

Thing is, Kravitz doesn’t steal the entire movie, just her scenes with the main cast. We take no pleasure in noting that the real MVP is a dude: Paul W. Downs, who plays Jess’ fiance. While the women are putting dildo glasses on the corpse, Downs’ Peter has let a dumb cellphone miscommunication lead him to suspect Jess doesn’t want to marry him after all. As he speeds overnight from New York to Florida to re-proclaim his love, all the while clad in diapers and driven mad by Red Bull and Adderall, Downs gives this unaccountably only semi-funny lark a periodic shot in the arm, dragging it in weird and unexpected directions. They’re the only times “Rough Night” causes you to go from thinking “that’s funny” to responding with an LOL.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge