Friday, September 29, 2017

Pretty rough

Before I had seen either of them, I heard Rough Night and Girls Trip being compared to one another quite a bit. Well, twice at least, on two different podcasts.

Although the podcasters deemed both films to have a bit of value, it seemed pretty clear that Rough Night was considered the mildly superior effort -- a problematic distinction since Girls Trip has a cast of primarily African-Americans (with one notable exception), while Rough Night has a cast of primarily whites (with one not-so-notable exception). Just because the distinction was problematic, though, didn't make it not true, and I worried a bit about that going into them.

When I saw Girls Trip three weeks ago, though, my fears of its inferiority -- not with respect to Rough Night, which I hadn't seen yet, but in general -- were immediately laid to rest. Simply put, I loved the movie. I thought the tone was great, the set pieces were suitably hilarious (if not all totally successful), and the friendship between the characters seemed real.

None of these things were true for Rough Night, which I saw last night. In fact, I found it pretty rough.

Which I have to say is kind of a relief.

I don't want to go around artificially inflating the value of movies made by and starring African-Americans, though I do breathe a sigh of relief whenever I genuinely love one. This is for a couple reasons, some societal and some specific to me. For one, especially in the post-"Oscars so white" era, I want primarily black films to be genuinely appreciated by people, and not just included in awards discussions for reasons of liberal do-gooder tokenism. Box office is probably the better way to determine how well a movie is legitimately liked, and in the case of a movie like Girls Trip, probably the only way, as awards talk won't enter into it. In that regard I'm glad to say the movie seems to have been a smashing success, bypassing $100 million at the U.S. box office -- which is $80 million more than Rough Night made.

For me personally, though, it helps reinforce my critic's oath to remove my own personal demographics as much as possible from my judgment of a film. As I am a white male about to turn 44, there are certain films that are more likely to be aimed at me than others, and your average person tends to gravitate more toward films aimed at them. In fact, a friend who saw Girls Trip and thought my 8/10 review here was generous said "I don't think I was the target audience." Well, as a critic, you are always the target audience. You're supposed to divorce yourself from your particular biases and see the films through the eyes of the person it was meant for. Any time a Girls Trip comes along, I am relieved to be reminded that I'm still making good on that implicit oath.

Rough Night, it turns out, deserved to make only 20% of what Girls Trip made. My own numerical grade, had I been reviewing it, would have been 50% of what I gave Girls Trip, or 4/10.

Both films feature a core group of four college friends who get back together for a wild weekend that celebrates their previous wild times, and as might be expected, they have differing personalities with all personality types represented -- the uptight one, the crazy one, etc. A fifth outsider is added in both cases as well, though she plays more of a role in Rough Night than Girls Trip.

The big difference is how much these four feel like they were actually friends in college. They do in Girls Trip and they don't in Rough Night -- though I suppose I should acknowledge that Rough Night has the responsibility to be all things to all people, while Girls Trip can exist as more of a niche product intended for African-American audiences (and anyone else who happens to want to watch). Perhaps because Rough Night needs to offer us an array of demographic types, including a heavier one, a lesbian one (who also functions as Jewish one) and a black one, it convinces us a little less that they were all friends in college, despite a scene showing them in those days. Girls Trip also has this scene, and I suppose in a sense, they are more "like" each other in that they are all black women. But chemistry is the biggest factor here. The Girls Trip women have it; the Rough Night women don't.

Comedies like this place a lot of stock in their set pieces, and here I noticed a big distinction as well. The set pieces in Girls Trip go somewhere, literally. They all take place in different locations. I couldn't help feeling claustrophobic as I watched Rough Night as they keep ... coming ... back to that house. It's a nice house, but I got tired of looking at it.

Then I had my basic problems with some of the logic of Rough Night, and spoilers will follow here if you want to tread carefully. So they accidentally kill the "stripper," who is actually a diamond thief who shows up at this house at about the time the stripper was supposed to show up (though why, we never learn). They then spend what seems like hours trying to dispose of his body -- enough that Scarlett Johansson's character says they have to hurry because they can't dispose of a body in broad daylight. Only then does the real stripper finally come, with no explanation for his lengthy delay, so of course they mistake him for a police officer (because he's dressed as one). If the stripper doesn't show up until 2 in the morning, or whenever the film would suggest this is supposed to be taking place, shouldn't he not bother coming at all? The failure to explore the consequences of all their misdeeds also seemed to be a lame concession to Hollywood happy endings.

Then I absolutely hated the subplot about Johansson's fiancee, who because of one of those classic "I can't hear what you're saying because your cell phone reception is bad" misunderstandings believes that she is going to leave him. So he puts on adult diapers and drives all night to Florida to try to get her back. Any time spent on his dumb shenanigans -- including an unnecessary scene devoted to picking out the wrong brand of diapers, and a scene where he runs out of money and has to wash windshields at a gas station for gas money, a delay that would counteract the need to drive without stopping and wear diapers -- is wasted time. Never mind the fact the drive ultimately takes him no longer than a couple hours anyway, as he arrives in Florida while it's still nighttime, at a time that could have been no more than four or five hours after the misunderstood phone call.

Both films address their racial politics in ways that are telling in terms of how obliquely they address them. I really liked the head-on way Regina Hall's character tries to tell token white Kate Walsh which black catchphrases she should not be using. Walsh's character is indeed there to represent a certain type of cluelessness, a certain way whites try to appropriate black culture, but as the film goes on it's clear she has a good heart and means well. The film doesn't put here there just to make fun of her. Meanwhile, in Rough Night, the one black character is Zoe Kravitz, who it should be noted is very light-skinned. I note that only because if you are being cynical, you could suggest that she was cast because she had a skin tone that would not put off the target audience -- though I of course am not that cynical (right). I don't remember the exact exchange that occurs about her race -- I think there is exactly one -- but another character essentially accuses her of not being black enough. It's never explained why she is not black enough ... we should assume at least it's not because of her skin tone, because that's outside her control and no one could be that cruel, but because she doesn't "act black," which is perhaps even more troublesome.

So the box offices have spoken, and though I don't know how these films did in Australia, I was pleased at least that my theater was pretty full when seeing Girls Trip, and a lot of people were laughing. I sometimes worry about how "black movies" will play here ... and I'm not always in the cinema myself to judge in person, unfortunately.

In terms of Australia, I should end by saying that one of the bright spots in Rough Night is Kate McKinnon and her Australian accent, which is largely on point. Now, getting four American actresses to play Australians, and to showcase who can do the best Australian accent in a raucous weekend in, I don't know, Fiji ... that's something I would pay to see.

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