Rough Night and Girls Trip are basically the same movie apart from the fact that one has a predominantly white cast and the other a predominantly black cast, right? College gal pals reunite on a vacation that goes wrong. Raunchy, R-Rated hilarity ensues. The internet collectively worries Hollywood is now so creatively bankrupt that it made the same movie twice, just in separate, but equal fashion. So, what am I talking about with this nonsense about gender being the real difference between the two?
More on that in a second.
There is a fantastic scene fairly early on in Girls Trip where Regina Hall, playing a young Oprah-like media figure on the rise, tells her white agent (Kate Walsh) that while she is welcome to party with her and her friends (Jada Pinkett-Smith, Queen Latifah, Tiffany Haddish) at Essence Fest in New Orleans she needs to remember that she is a guest there. Behave accordingly. Don’t think it is okay to trot out your favorite Urban Dictionary expressions to sound more “black.” Don’t ask everyone if it’s time to “raise the roof.” Just. Don’t. This vacation is their thing as college friends, and the Essence Festival is their thing as African-American women. So, really, check your white liberal guilt at the door, think twice before you repeat any of the things you see and hear while there and have fun.
As Linda Holmes argued on NPR’s Pop Culture Hour, this scene serves not only as a direct address to Kate Walsh’s well-meaning, but clueless white woman character but also to all of the non-black people in the audience seeing this movie. We are all guests at the table, glimpsing the very unique way in which black women talk to each other and witnessing the mainstream breakthrough of a comedy powerhouse performer (Haddish) black audiences have known about for years. Plus, we’re probably just now learning about Essence Fest even though it’s been around for over 20 years and annually attracts an audience three times the size of San Diego Comic-Con.
Yet Girl’s Trip director Malcolm D. Lee would prefer we not think of his movie in those race-based terms, telling KCRW’s The Business:
“It is my goal to make so-called ‘African-American movies’ mainstream. Every movie I’ve ever done [Soul Men, The Best Man Holiday, Barbershop: The Next Cut] has had universal themes. It’s had cultural specificity, but it does have universal themes, whether it’s love or loss or career choices. These are people stories; they just happen to be black. There’s no reason why a movie like Best Man’s Holiday and now Girls Trip couldn’t cross over and become part of the pantheon of just movies.”
Crossing over is exactly what Girls Trip has done, grossing $65M in its first 10 days against a $19M production budget. It’s the rare comedy hit in a summer full of flops and underperformers, and its success has easily turned Scarlett Johansson’s Rough Night (which grossed just $21m last month; read my review) into a mere historical footnote, the Deep Impact to its Armageddon, Leviathan to its Abyss, Life to its Alien: Covenant.
That one would fail and the other succeed is predictable enough. That’s how these things tend to go in Hollywood history when two duplicate projects arrive at roughly the same time. However, very rarely has race been the primary differentiation between two such high-profile projects, and those worries about what this says about Hollywood’s creativity still apply.
As per Malcolm D. Lee’s own stated goals, Girls Trip has an undeniable cultural specificity, but it also carries universal themes which should be familiar to those few who did see Rough Night. These are both stories about sisterhood, about friends struggling to repair old wounds, about women behaving badly and getting by with a little help from their friends.
They also play many of the same expected story beats, offering up the Bridesmaids-esque exploits of a group of women on an out-of-town weekend trip. Each one has a recognizable leading lady, Johansson for Rough, and Hall for Girls, surrounded by funny character actresses, Jillian Bell, Ilana Glazer, Kate McKinnon, Zoe Kravitz on one side, Latifah, Haddish and Pinkett-Smith on the other. The women in both films strut through the city like they own it, are seen sharing a group hug on a bed together, roll their eyes at the over-the-top stylings and one-liners from the obvious wild card member of their little sistership, hit the local bars where they try to re-enact a dance they perfected together in their college days, etc. Sure enough, the two queen bees in the group (Hall and Latifah in Girls, Johansson and Bell in Rough) aren’t the friends they used to be, and that fracture and the need to repair it is the primary driving point of the story.
Of course, then Rough Night turns into a black comedy with a dead male stripper at its center. Girls Trip, um, doesn’t do that. Plus, since there is a decade+ age difference between the two casts Rough Night is about millennials struggling to move on to the next stages in life (such as a first marriage or financial independence) whereas Girls Trip is more about seasoned women trying to get their groove back (post-divorce or in the face of cheating spouse). Even so, both movies still build to a predictable group hug moment and impassioned speech about how much these women mean to each other. Their paths getting there might differ, but their goals are very much the same.
Except Rough Night also busies itself with a subplot Girls Trip knew better than to mess with, and that’s where gender comes into play.
SPECIFIC SPOILERS BEGIN HERE
See, the point of the trip in Rough Night is to throw Scarlett Johansson’s wannabe-Hillary Clinton a bachelorette party for her pending wedding to a true beta male (played by the film’s co-writer Paul W. Downs) who is heard boasting in his very first scene that if she’s too stressed or busy to have sex like they’d planned he’ll happily masturbate in the shower to relieve her of feeling any pressure or guilt. That she greets this with an “Awww” and a quick kiss on the cheek is supposed to indicate how perfect they are for each other. Girls Trip, on the other hand, brings its girls together for a work opportunity at Essence Fest that turns into a nightmare when Regina Hall’s longtime husband (Luke Cage himself, Mike Colter) gets caught cheating.
So, there are men at the heart of each film, but in Girls Trip they’re always off in the distance somewhere. Various hunks filter through as love interests, and Colter pops in for the occasional tense conversation with Hall. Their marriage turns out to be a sham they kept going for what it meant to their respective careers as a potential media power couple, but it takes the strength and support of her sisters to give her the courage to stand up for herself and fight back against a man who would continually disrespect her by being caught in public with some Instagram ho with butt implants. This come-to-Jesus moment has the impact it does because Girls Trip never loses focus on who the movie is really about, offering up nary a scene that doesn’t feature at least one of the main four women. It is 2 hours of these women being together and propping each other up as much as they can, briefly splintering apart and then coming back together in the end.
Rough Night, on the other hand, dovetails into a regrettable subplot wherein Johansson’s fiance has his own zany side adventure involving an all-night drive to see her in Florida while wearing adult diapers and downing cases of Red Bull. He misunderstands something she says on the cell phone – while she’s trying to lie to him to cover up the fact that she’s just become an accessory to murder – and fears the wedding is off unless he can make some last minute grand romantic gesture. His similarly beta male friends give him the push he needs, and he amiably reacts to every obstacle he encounters along the way, such as a handstand sobriety test or a sudden lack of funds while stopping for gas at a rest stop populated almost exclusively with secretly gay truckers and tourists.
It’s the same one-note joke over and over again, juxtaposing his doofy ineffectiveness (and determination) with the severity of what his fiance and her friends are up to. It’s the same style of men-are-babies, women-are-bosses comedy seen in The Heat, Spy, Ghostbusters and Snatched, just made practically literal what with him wearing diapers. It’s of a piece with Rough Night’s broad, cartoonish tone, but it’s ultimately out of place or at the very least over-indulged. An early cutaway from a particularly raunchy moment of Johansson and pal’s bachelorette shindig to her fiance’s sedate wine tasting (since he’s the type who’s above holding a traditional bachelor party) earns a laugh, but as the film continually cuts back to him it does so to seriously diminished returns.
The film seems to forget that this character doesn’t really matter. Apart from a last-second save he unwittingly performs with his car, he’s as inconsequential to the plot as Justin Bartha‘s increasingly nervous wife-to-be in the first Hangover. He’s a guest in the movie who doesn’t realize he’s taking valuable screen time away from the women and their bonding. Girls Trip doesn’t make that same mistake.
This difference might not seem as significant or as obvious as race. However, when you cut to the heart of what these women are saying to each other in each of these movies it’s largely the same conversation. What separates the two, beyond one simply having better jokes than the other, is Girls Trip has a script which never loses track of where the focus should be but Rough Night can’t quite help itself.
Or do you disagree? Let me know in the comments.