The Summer of 2017 Was a Showdown Between ‘Girls Trip’ and ‘Rough Night.’ Tiffany Haddish Won

This weekend’s ‘Joy Ride’ is the latest female-centric comedy about friends on an outrageous R-rated adventure. Six years ago, two similar films squared off, resulting in the launching of a star
The Summer of 2017 Was a Showdown Between ‘Girls Trip’ and ‘Rough Night.’ Tiffany Haddish Won

This weekend sees the release of Joy Ride, the R-rated buddy comedy in which four young Asian-Americans travel across China, wacky exploits occurring along the way. A smash at South by Southwest, the film is part of a growing list of comedies that are raunchy, proudly profane and sexually frank that — mercy me — don’t feature a bunch of horny dudes. Instead, the action centers on three women (Ashley Park, Sherry Cola and Stephanie Hsu) and the K-pop loving Deadeye (Sabrina Wu, who like their character is nonbinary). 

Not so long ago, Joy Ride would have seemed outrageous — Oh no, it’s ladies swearing and having sex! — but in the wake of Bridesmaids, Hollywood (and audiences) changed its tune. That Oscar-nominated comedy came out 12 years ago, and plenty of groundbreaking comedies have emerged since. In fact, the summer of 2017 was an especially crucial period that saw the launch of not one but two high-profile, female-centric R-rated films. It was a season in which Rough Night and Girls Trip squared off. The winner was Tiffany Haddish.

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This sort of raucous buddy comedy usually contains a few familiar types. You need the uptight workaholic. You have to have an amorous knucklehead. And, of course, there’s the wild card — the person everyone can count on to say and/or do crazy things. (Note: Sometimes the wild card is also the amorous knucklehead.) Bill Murray played this latter role sometimes. Melissa McCarthy received an Academy Award nomination for portraying such a character in Bridesmaids. And in Girls Trip, the part went to Haddish, who at that stage of her career wasn’t widely known. 

Growing up in South Los Angeles, she’d been doing comedy for years, focusing on stand-up while appearing in everything from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia to Keanu. But when she was cast as Dina, the unpredictable member of a female foursome of college friends reuniting in New Orleans, Haddish finally snagged the role that would garner her major attention — in part because she understood Dina so well. “There’s a lot of things she says that remind me of myself, but then there’s a lot of things that she does that I would probably never do,” Haddish said in 2017. “I imagine Dina as myself times 10.”

Jokes about oral sex, jokes about humiliating public urination, myriad jokes about dick: Girls Trip took full advantage of its R rating, but going into that summer, the movie faced a few obstacles in its box-office showdown with Rough Night. For one thing, Rough Night opened a month before Girls Trip, possibly stealing some of its thunder. Plus, Rough Night starred Scarlett Johansson, who was one of the biggest celebrities on the planet thanks to the Marvel movies. If all that wasn’t concerning enough, Rough Night’s plot, although clearly indebted to Weekend at Bernie’s and the forgotten dark comedy Very Bad Things, had a primo hook: Women on bachelor party accidentally kill stripper, try to hide their crime. 

But despite those apparent disadvantages, Girls Trip had something that Rough Night didn’t: Haddish. To be fair, the other three leads in that film — Regina Hall, Jada Pinkett Smith and Queen Latifah — are also very funny, but Haddish brought the scene-stealing energy that gave Girls Trip its sense of abandon and spontaneity. For viewers unfamiliar with Haddish, her performance was a revelation, but for those in the industry, it was a moment that was waiting to happen. 

“I became aware of her from The Carmichael Show,” Girls Trip director Michael B. Lee later said. “(I thought,) ‘Oh, that lady’s funny.” Haddish had stayed on his radar, but when he showed up for the premiere of his 2016 film Barbershop: The Next Cut, their paths finally crossed — and Haddish made sure to make an impression. “Literally, when I stepped out of the car, she was right there on the red carpet and said, ‘I’m going to be in your next movie.’ And she was right.”  

Where other comedy wild cards were merely zany or crass, Haddish’s Dina was a cocky, sexually confident wrecking ball. Melissa McCarthy’s Megan might have been a horndog, but even she didn’t possess Dina’s swagger, especially when the character introduces her friends to the “grapefruit technique.” That scene, as much as any in Girls Trip, made Haddish a star. It also made her beloved among the (male) film crew. “Somebody bought me something from Jared jewelry,” she told Entertainment Weekly about the scene’s impact on those around her on set. “All the guys started coming to my comedy shows.”

This was the kind of legitimately shocking, rowdy laughs that R-rated comedies were supposed to have — as opposed to Rough Night, which mostly tried very hard to be irreverent. Johansson was surrounded by funny women — Kate McKinnon, Jillian Bell, Ilana Glazer and Zoë Kravitz — and was directed by Lucia Aniello, who worked on Broad City and co-created Hacks. But the humor often fell flat and the characters were mostly unfunny — especially McKinnon as the putative wild card, a pseudo-zany Australian named Kiwi. Rough Night just felt like a cynical formula — a little Bridesmaids mixed with The Hangover — without any great reason to exist other than the fact that broad female comedies were suddenly big business. (Don’t forget that the R-rated Bad Moms had been a surprise hit the previous summer.) The movie did okay business but got mostly mixed reviews, setting the stage for Girls Trip, which was critically acclaimed and grossed over $100 million at the U.S. box office. 

Girls Trip felt like an event, but its cultural resonance went beyond just how funny it was. As Jeremy Fuster put it in The Wrap after the movie’s release, “(A)long with just being a great film, Girls Trip had other things going for it, a major one being that it fulfilled the demand for representation from female and African-American audiences. Films that put Black actors and filmmakers in the spotlight like Get Out, Moonlight, Hidden Figures, and the upcoming Black Panther have become some of the most talked about titles of late, but such films are still few and far in-between on the release slate. Girls Trip, with its ode to African-American sisterhood, fulfilled a demand which hadn’t been satisfied in a while, as shown by its demographic breakdowns: 79 percent female, 59 percent African-American.” 

Much like Bridesmaids before it, Girls Trip catered to an underserved audience. But it wasn’t a formula: Haddish and her co-stars were too fresh and engaging to let that happen. For all its raunchy talk and outrageous gags, the movie was actually very endearing — much more so than Rough Night — which provided the perfect balance of tart and sweet. As the film’s breakout sensation, Haddish was suddenly everywhere, even receiving Best Supporting Actress from the New York Film Critics Circle. Her acceptance speech at the group’s awards banquet brought down the house, and Lesley Manville, who was there on behalf of her Phantom Thread writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson, read a note from the director, which said, “Tiffany, I know everyone wants to work with you now, but please, may I cut to the front of the line?” Haddish didn’t get an Oscar nomination, but her ascension was cemented. 

Soon, she was popping up in tons of films, including Night School and Nobody’s Fool, and also doing voice work in the Lego Movie and Secret Life of Pets sequels. She stole Bad Trip, proved she had excellent dramatic chops alongside Oscar Isaac in The Card Counter and will be in this summer’s Haunted Mansion and reprising her role on Apple TV+’s The Afterparty. In a few short years, it seemed like she had always been here. But she hadn’t: Girls Trip changed all that.

When Bridesmaids opened in 2011, it was a commercial test of the viability of the female-driven broad comedy. Because of its huge success, similar films have followed — everything from Bachelorette to Booksmart — and they’re frequently compared to Bridesmaids. Often wised-up and sexually explicit, these female-driven comedies have evolved over time, so much so that the new Joy Ride has more in common with Girls Trip than that Melissa McCarthy film. And it’s not simply that the story focuses on people of color — it’s because Joy Ride giddily flouts the same social niceties, letting its characters be three-dimensional individuals who are very into sex and know what they want in the bedroom and in life. 

Bridesmaids knocked that door open, and then films like Girls Trip tore it off the hinges. But as Rough Night proved that same summer, just having swearing, screwing and bad behavior doesn’t guarantee a hit. You need a special ingredient — a comedic presence so undeniable that you want to see what she’s going to do next. Rough Night didn’t have it. Joy Ride, as fun as it is, doesn’t have that. Tiffany Haddish made such a dynamic spark seem effortless, but don’t be fooled: Other R-rated comedies highlight just how hard it is to be the perfect wild card.

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