Neither Are the Directors

Vanity Fair ran a feature on Rough Night with the jarring headline: “The Audacity of Rough Night, the First R-rated Studio Comedy Directed by a Woman in Nearly 20 Years.” The article noted a technicality in Nancy Meyers’ It’s Complicated, which earned an R rating for a brief scene depicting marijuana use, but the last truly “R-rated comedy” directed by a woman was Tamra Davis’s Half Baked, which debuted in 1998. That seems insane, until you read the depressing statistics on female directors across all genres. Women still comprise less than 10% of the directors on the top 250 movies in a given year.

In fact, if you look at the credits on the 15 highest-grossing female-driven comedies, you’ll find exactly one lady in the directors’ chair: Elizabeth Banks for Pitch Perfect 2. The rest are all men with varying degrees of fame. Some, like Charles Herman-Wurmfeld, have already been lost to history.

All this is to say that women, even the well-established ones, are rarely allowed to direct comedies about women. And that’s a big problem when you consider films like Bad Moms.

Bad Moms was an enormous financial success, so much so that it easily earned a sequel. (A Bad Mom’s Christmas hits theaters this November.) But several female critics took issue with the movie, specifically for its characterization of the titular moms. This critique is hard to ignore when you consider who wrote and directed the movie: two dudes. Specifically, Scott Moore and Jon Lucas of Hangover fame.

Here’s how Moore described the movie’s genesis in an interview: “Jon and I are both married to two lovely women and we both have two kids. We’re kind of in the thick of it, parenting-wise. What happened was, we were both sitting around trying to think of our next script in our home offices, looking at blank monitors and watching our wives trying to live up to this idea of being the perfect mom and running ragged with the kids. We saw how intense and how much pressure that is, and we thought there was a lot of comedy there.”

Nowhere does Moore suggest he and Lucas actually asked their wives about “the idea of being the perfect mom” or “how intense that is.” They seemingly just observed and placed their own expectations on these (not really) bad moms. That’s not only lazy, but a bad long-term business strategy. For raunchy female comedies to truly grow, there needs to be a greater effort to connect with their intended audience. Handing the reins over to creatives who are part of that very audience is a crucial step in the right direction.

Where Is This All Going?

Rough Night probably won’t do much to shake up the scene. Box office could change that theory completely, but on its own, the movie isn’t all that groundbreaking. Some of the humor does feel different, most likely the result of the “woke” millennial perspective director and co-writer Lucia Aniello ported over from Broad City (where she, Ilana Glazer, and co-writer/star Paul W. Downs all work). That’s something worth exploring, especially since it’s distinct from Neighbors 2, which was highlighted for similarly progressive themes. But Neighbors 2 had to essentially pitch feminism to frat brothers. Rough Night never has that burden.

The casting of Scarlett Johansson, who is a perfectly adequate straight woman but decidedly not a comedian, does signal a potentially worrisome strategy. Are studios, in a moment of bizarre backsliding, now deciding that female ensemble comedies don’t “work” unless there’s an established name attached? This is demonstrably false (see, for the millionth time, Bridesmaids) but it does seem like the exact kind of miscalculation a studio like Sony would make. Remember: they’re also the ones who did Ghostbusters, which was deemed a disappointment. The executives must be looking for an answer right now, and although “more celebrities!” isn’t the correct one, it might be the one they chose.

Regardless of how Rough Night is received, however, it’s certainly encouraging that women seem to be writing these bawdy comedies. Aniello shares screenwriting credit with her partner Downs here, but women have claimed sole screenplay credit for Bridesmaids, The Heat, Trainwreck, Sisters, Snatched, and several recent movies. Tracy Oliver, Karen McCullah, and Erica Rivinoja will share credit with Kenya Barris on Girls Trip.

A big thing to keep an eye on moving forward is the producer credits. Elizabeth Banks was a producer on the original Pitch Perfect, went on to direct the sequel, and has since passed the baton onto another woman director. Reese Witherspoon has also been candid about seeking out women for her productions – her buddy movie with Sofia Vergara, Hot Pursuit, was directed by a woman and so is her upcoming rom-com Home Again. If women like McCarthy, who has produced a few of her films, start taking a more active hand in these raunchy female comedies, that could result in more women directors. It could also just result in better characters – gross, messy, ridiculous ones who resemble the gross, messy, ridiculous women of reality.

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