Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: With Black Widow postponed, we’re looking back on the best performances by Scarlett Johansson.
Rough Night (2017)
Most of Scarlett Johansson’s memorable comic acting hasn’t actually happened in film comedy. She’s hosted Saturday Night Live enough times to have a recurring character and a regular impression and her deadpan line-readings got laughs in the Joss Whedon Avengers movies. Admittedly, the 2017 manslaughter farce Rough Night isn’t on the same level as her other recent high-water marks (many of which are receiving the spotlight in this week’s other Watch This entries). It is, however, consistently funny and underseen, adding some broad-comedy range to her stealthily impressive repertoire.
Prior to the emotional openness of Marriage Story, much of Johansson’s best recent work traded on her slightly alien inscrutability, so it’s a clever touch that Rough Night casts her as an aspiring state senator with relatability issues, as illustrated by a campaign ad where her attempt at a warm smile looks more like a nervous twitch. Jess (Johansson) takes a reluctant break from campaigning to attend her bachelorette weekend, though she’d really prefer to stay home with her fiancé, Peter (Broad City’s Paul W. Downs, who also co-wrote). She heads to Miami in part out of obligation to her college roommate Alice (Jillian Bell), who’s uncomfortably pumped for some nostalgic debauchery. Zoë Kravitz, Ilana Glazer, and Kate McKinnon round out the group, whose collective tension increases once they accidentally kill a man.
It’s all very Very Bad Things: drugs, stripper-hiring, accidental death, panicked excuses for not calling the cops, impromptu body disposal, and a lingering question of whether the characters can truly get away with their bad behavior. If the movie’s darkest moments feel a little incongruous, it’s because the gender-flip throws off the self-satisfied sourness that makes Very Bad Things so toxic. Despite raunchy dialogue and smears of blood, Rough Night is essentially sweet-natured, a comedy about how friendships forged in college can fray in the real world, especially as former besties’ lives wind up on different paths. When wild nights out become scarcer, some people look to these clichéd rituals to make up for any and all lost time; Downs and co-writer/director Lucia Aniello (another Broad City vet) capture the sadness of the bachelorette party as supersized overcompensation. Their observations about friend-group dynamics aren’t always revelatory, but still provide a welcome Bridesmaids-adjacent corrective to one of the worst studio comedies ever made.
This is an ensemble piece, not a specifically designed Johansson vehicle. She stands out in part because so many of her co-stars are doing familiar shtick: McKinnon is an eye-bugging non-sequitur machine, Bell is profanely passive-aggressive (only maybe not so passive), and Glazer proudly flies her freak flag. They all have their moments—though the real scene-stealer is Downs, whose hilariously genteel bachelor party turns into a frantic all-night race to Miami when he realizes Jess is in trouble. Johansson holds the center without making her relative straight-woman routine too normie. If anything, her reactions, asides, and revelations of insecurities score laughs because she’s less of a caricature than some of her co-stars—less aloof than her Ghost World or Black Widow personas, yet not resorting to SNL-level broadness, either. In other words, one of the biggest movie stars in the world manages to come across as, like, super-relatable.