Warning: This story contains major spoilers for Rough Night.
Rough Night is a movie that, from the beginning, I wanted to root for. Before even watching the trailer, I saw the cast and the credits in the title of the YouTube trailer, and immediately sent it to everyone I knew, alongside a message like, "FCUK YES SLHSLDHGLSDGL." I needed no further convincing — I knew I was going to love it. The comedy stars Scarlett Johansson, Kate McKinnon, Jillian Bell, Ilana Glazer, and Zoë Kravitz. These people are my friends. We've had many conversations inside the safety of my own fantasies, and in all of them, they think I'm really funny. Furthermore, it was written by Broad City's Lucia Aniello and Paul W. Downs, and even has some great scenes with Bo Burnham and Hasan Minhaj. This film was *Ilana Glazer in Broad City voice* li-te-ra-lly written for me.
Rough Night tells the story of a bachelorette party gone wrong when, as the trailer shows, the ensemble accidentally kills their hired stripper. What appears to ensue is the plot of Very Bad Things, but the hard-partying maybe-murderers are women with great hair. However, its uncanny resemblance to the 1998 thriller starring Christian Slater wasn't the reason for ensuing uproar online. It was the fact that it appeared to be using the same problematic trope.
"Sex workers are very marginalised groups of people who don't have the same workplace safety and rights as other workers — and we get murdered a lot," Los Angeles based porn performer and sex worker Arabelle Raphael told Refinery29 shortly after the trailer's release. "Our lives are seen as disposable."
The internet was ablaze with condemnation of the film, based solely on the trailer, and warnings against giving your money to a cast and crew who appeared to approach the lives of sex workers so flippantly.
"Sex workers are the punchline to cheap jokes often made by people who have little to no experience with them," added Jacqueline Frances, a writer, comedian, illustrator, and stripper in New York City. "Maybe there is some brilliant redemptive plot twist where the stripper was actually a serial killer of other sex workers and these ladies were unknowingly doing the Lord's work."
...ding, ding, ding, essentially. There's a pretty big plot twist in Rough Night which is probably why, amidst all the initial criticism, the creators and cast remained so tight-lipped. Turns out, the person who Jillian Bell's character accidentally kills is not a stripper — we just think he is throughout most of the movie. Once the body is disposed of and the crime scene cleaned, the doorbell rings. Stripper's here!
So who was the person whose head cracked on the side of a fireplace, who the women pushed out to sea only for him to wash back up? Conveniently, a wanted criminal. This leads to more death and some amateur gunplay that saves the day and ultimately exonerates the women from the murder. In a further subversion, the real stripper sticks around, and ends up becoming Jillian Bell's love interest, so you can leave the theater feeling vindicated and just a bit more progressive — despite the fact that, by nature of you showing up at all, you were able to push your morals enough to the side to accept the initial premise.
The problem with making people think you're relying on a tired and problematic trope is that they'll think you're relying on a tired and problematic trope. The trailer leaves no room for ambiguity — we literally watch someone who we think is a stripper die. However, ambiguity is the main source of tension in the film — who did they really kill and what do they do about it? We're being given two different stories, and the one that's supposed to lure people to the theater is the one that's turning everyone off.
Which is a shame, because Rough Night is funny and fresh. The cast became fast friends on set, and that chemistry is clear on screen. This isn't to say it's a perfect movie, but its problems are its slow start and clumsy attempts at finding some greater sentimental meaning, not the fact that they kill a stripper (because that doesn't actually happen). However, even if I write this article and shout it from the rooftops, nothing will undo the damage made by the trailer. This is the dead stripper movie. The female Very Bad Things.
Perhaps a reworked trailer could have changed the fact that the film ended up underperforming on its opening weekend. Should the studio have inserted some kind of "But they don't actually murder a sex worker!" warning in the promos? Or is the surprise twist so good, so worth keeping under wraps, that alienating an entire generation of feminist social media users is a price worth paying?
Probably not. A lot of those feminist social media users (myself included) would probably enjoy it.