If there's one thing you can say for the uneven but enjoyable female buddy comedy Rough Night, it's that it passes the Bechdel test. Indeed, an entire subplot rests on the premise that the main dude love interest, Peter (Paul W. Downs, who also cowrote), talks and thinks way more about his relationship with protagonist Jess (Scarlett Johansson) than she does. In one of the movie's best sight gags, director Lucia Aniello ("Broad City") cuts from Jess' wild bachelorette party to Peter and his hipster buds celebrating in their own way: with an absurdly solemn and precious wine tasting.
While wild bachelorette parties may or may not indicate increasing gender parity, they've become established as cinematic cliché. So perhaps it was inevitable that someone would do a female take on the 1998 black comedy Very Bad Things, in which the accidental death of a sex worker sent a bachelor party in a nasty direction.
When the five female friends in Rough Night talk about a man, it's usually a dead man — the corpse of a stripper (Ryan Cooper) who fell prey to an accident resulting from bridal bud Alice's (Jillian Bell) unbridled enthusiasm for his pectorals.
Like so many foolish comic protagonists before them, the women panic and decide to erase all traces of the deceased. Most of the cleanup tactics they attempt lack both common sense and visual flair. (No one even suggests a barrel of hydrofluoric acid.) So the wacky, tasteless premise generates plenty of wacky, tasteless, hit-or-miss gags, with the unfortunate stiff serving as a prop à la Weekend at Bernie's.
Luckily, all this silliness is just an excuse for the five principals to bicker and bond, and the cast is talented enough to make their reunion entertaining. Friends since undergrad, the women are defined by the opposite stereotypes they embody: Jess is a type A Miss Perfect, while Alice is a try-hard misfit who fiercely defends her position as Jess' BFF. College lovers Blair (Zoë Kravitz) and Frankie (Ilana Glazer, also of "Broad City") have taken divergent paths: The former is now a sleekly groomed professional, the latter a scrappy political activist.
Then there's the newcomer to the group: Jess' Australian friend, Pippa (Kate McKinnon), one of those wild-card oddballs that every dark comedy requires. McKinnon's growly accent and jaded reactions to the women's increasingly outlandish predicament are pretty funny, but, at the end, her character still feels like a truly subversive joke waiting to happen.
Hampered by predictable plot twists that remove the sting from the premise, Rough Night never gets that far out into edgy-comedy territory. Ironically, many of its weirdest and most memorable laughs come from the male subplot. Downs plays adoring fiancé Peter as a wild-eyed, insecure puppy of a millennial who seems to have been raised on rom-coms; he sets out on a cross-country trek to "win back" Jess before she's even rejected him.
At the movie's core is a palpable status-driven desperation — to have the perfect partner, the perfect friend, the perfect celebration — that the usual comedy bromides about taking it easy and having fun can't quite erase. Had the script made the women suffer direr consequences for their actions, it might have confronted that desperation head-on. As it is, Rough Night is basically a feel-good amusement with some darker moments and implications, and a tribute to female friendship in which men, dead or alive, are far from the only topic of conversation.