The XX Factor

In Praise of Rough Night’s Hilarious, Empathetic Take on the Emasculated Boyfriend Trope

Paul W. Downs, center, as Peter in Rough Night.

Macall Polay - © 2017 - Sony Pictures Entertainment

To the extent that there is one at all, the message of this weekend’s big R-rated bachelorette party comedy Rough Night is that women can behave just as badly as men. They too can do drugs, get rowdy, make messes, and break the law. Which is all well and good: Nobody ever said they couldn’t. While the movie falls into the same trap as many female-driven comedies before it—assuming “that women acting out is still a novel concept,” as Vanity Fair has put itRough Night does manage to launch one fresh salvo into the pop culture–gender politics wars: It rescues and remixes the trope of the emasculated boyfriend.

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In Rough Night, Scarlett Johansson’s Jess is engaged to Paul W. Downs’ Peter, and theirs is a modern partnership, the sort where sometimes her professional needs come before his personal ones. (In a modern partnership of their own, Downs co-wrote the movie with his real-life romantic partner Lucia Aniello, the movie’s director.) Jess is running for office right now so her career is top-priority. Who knows—maybe they’re one of those seesaw couples, where eventually they’ll switch off. But in any case, for the time being Peter is perfectly fine with supporting her. This being an R-rated comedy, he even (sweetly?) offers to masturbate in the shower so she doesn’t have to devote any of her precious working hours to sex.

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And once the bachelorette party antics get going, the movie periodically checks in on Peter, reminding us that while we’re reimagining our ideas about what women, we should maybe rethink our ideas about masculinity as well. It’s all right there in the trailer: “We are gonna be swimming in dick, girl!” Jillian Bell’s Alice declares to Jess before they leave. “Hi Alice,” Peter says, still standing right there, as if to to raise the important philosophical question that if women are swimming in dick, what does that mean for the menfolk?

As Jess and co. head to Miami for a wild girls’ trip, Peter is having a bachelor party of his own, but it’s a decidedly more staid affair. He and his male buddies have a wine tasting, where they sip reds and try to identify their flavor notes. All is going fine at the vineyard until Jess hangs up him mid–check-in phone call and Peter starts to get worried. Does she still want to marry him? One of his male companions convinces him that he needs to pull a “sad astronaut”: that is, inspired by the tale of astronaut Lisa Nowak, drive to Jess in Miami, and in order to reach her as soon as possible and minimize breaks, make the journey in a diaper. Peter stocks up on diapers (in a silly rap-soundtracked sequence) and hits the road, Downs selling an out-of-left-field plotline with commitment and hysterical energy. Along the way, he gets into a few scrapes, and soon enough he’s running around a gas station in a diaper, trying to make a buck to continue on his journey. The gender reversal is partly played for laughs: Look at these sissy men! But Downs’ plotline has an imaginative specificity that the rest of the movie often lacks, from the unforgettable “sad astronaut” coinage to the wacky descriptors the men give the wine (“beeswax?”). The bachelor party scenes riff hilariously on the awkwardness of relatively enlightened, past-their-hard-partying-years men trying to strike the right celebratory, masculine but not macho, dudely but not bro-y tone. While it’s not clear that couldn’t have just worn pants over the diaper (would pants have slowed him down?), Downs is surprising and funny—earnest, put-upon, panicked, all the while convincingly playing the adoring fiancé who just wants to make sure his betrothed is OK.

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Downs may be the funniest and most memorable thing in the movie, a bit of a dubious honor in a comedy ostensibly built to showcase a powerhouse female ensemble cast that includes Kate McKinnon, Ilana Glazer, Zoë Kravitz, and Jillian Bell. But it’s still notable that Downs’ portrayal feels like a new and improved spin on the trope of the beta, impotent boyfriend goes. In other movies featuring emasculated boyfriends, the man is often depicted as a one-dimensional sad sack and the woman doing the emasculating tends to fall on the shrew spectrum: Picture Sarah Silverman torturing Mike White in School of Rock, or Rachael Harris controlling Ed Helms in The Hangover. Rough Night, to its credit, doesn’t paint Jess as abusive or even bitchy, and she genuinely seems to love Peter just as much as he loves her. Peter’s emasculation is successfully played for laughs, but it’s also a slyly touching display of male vulnerability and devotion. He makes the less-than-macho boyfriend trope look less like a lame dishrag than a pretty desirable romantic partner himself.

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