Five very attractive actresses sewed their wild oats on 3,100 screens last weekend, but hardly anyone noticed. With a female director and an all-female cast, Rough Night from Sony sat a sad seventh on the box office charts (barely above Captain Underpants), stirring some to ask these questions: Are female filmmakers squandering their newly acquired muscle by recycling tired dude genres? Are the feminine sensibilities of a Nora Ephron or Nancy Meyers getting lost in today’s franchise frenzy?
I realize that these issues stir strong reactions amid the whirlwind of conferences dealing with women’s empowerment. But the back-to-back promotions for Rough Night and Girls Trip (similar story, black cast) make some wonder whether there is a “raunch requirement” to get a green light. Rough Night, which stars Scarlett Johansson, is the first female-directed R-rated movie in a generation.
“People are too quick in judging comedies led by women,” insists Lucia Aniello, who directed and co-wrote Rough Night. “They assume it’s just a remake of this or a female version of that.” These attitudes reflect back on the dire reactions to the female Ghostbusters or, more recently, to the Amy Schumer bomb Snatched.
One thing is clear: A revived woman’s movement is stirring in Hollywood and it’s already delivered encouraging results. Demands for better pay and wider opportunity resonate in forum after forum, from the AFI tribute to Diane Keaton to the well-attended Women@Fox initiative featuring a panel led by CEO Stacey Snider. All this has gained further impetus through the immense success of the Patty Jenkins-directed Wonder Woman. “It’s about time,” proclaims Meyers, the director of What Women Want.
So, should women be any more concerned than men about the tone and subject matter of their films? Clearly Jenkins set out to create a comic book superheroine, but still managed to inject a sensibility that triggered a shared empowerment among filmgoers (the scene where Wonder Woman tries on fashion outfits in a department store counter-balances the obligatory effects-laden combat scenes).
As Jenkins demonstrated that a woman could triumph on the comic book circuit, Aniello (who works with boyfriend Paul W Downs) delves into what is known in the trade as “hard-R” territory (she and Downs also co-wrote Broad City on Comedy Central). The trailer for Rough Night has been playing adjacent to that of Girls Trip, in which five black women, led by Queen Latifah, head off to play at a festival in New Orleans. (Girls Trip, which opens July 21, is directed by Malcolm Lee, but co-written by a woman, Tracy Oliver.) “Women behave badly in real life and it’s important to look at reality, not just fantasy,” Queen Latifah said in her interviews for Girls Trip. Rough Night all but wallows in its ‘R’ antics: the cocaine keeps flowing, the f-bombs fly, penile objects abound, and male strippers wander around in their g-strings, looking both confused and flaccid. A key plot point involves the inadvertent murder of one of the strippers, with the girls arguing stupidly about how to dispose of the body, and escape blame.
To be sure, several comedies that are a lot cleverer than Rough Night have scored well at the box office in recent years without total dependence on raunch. Bad Moms starring Mila Kunis, which dealt hilariously with helicopter moms, was a major sleeper last summer, grossing $113 million; a sequel will be out later this year. The Kristen Wiig-Maya Rudolph comedy Bridesmaids grossed $169 million in 2011. As I wrote last week, Emily V. Gordon co-wrote (with her husband Kumail Nanjiani) the hilarious new movie The Big Sick, about the problems of a Muslim mixed marriage.
Women in daily life today confront such a range of intriguing conflicts – work vs. family, grown kids who never leave home, aging parents, sexist bosses – that it’s a shame to see smart talent wasted on re-working tired dude genres. Even the ubiquitous Katy Perry last week announced her determination to leave her frothy image behind. Her liberation, she announced, was “both political and sexual.”
Her fans seemed to love it.