Mark Reviews Movies

The Night Before (2015)


2 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Jonathan Levine

Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, Anthony Mackie, Jillian Bell, Lizzy Caplan, Michael Shannon, Ilana Glazer, Mindy Kaling, Nathan Fielder, Aaron Hill, Heléne Yorke, Lorraine Toussaint, James Franco, Miley Cyrus, Tracy Morgan

MPAA Rating: R (for drug use and language throughout, some strong sexual content and graphic nudity)

Running Time: 1:41

Release Date: 11/20/15

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Review by Mark Dujsik | November 19, 2015

We expect a comedy like The Night Before to be somewhat haphazard in its gags. It's an irreverent skewering of the time-honored traditions and tales of Christmas, so of course the movie will try to cram in as much as possible.

Tracy Morgan provides the profane rhymes of the opening storybook narration. The Dickensian ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future have been condensed into one character here—a weed dealer whose product has seemingly mystical powers. The grinch who wants to ruin Christmas steals one of the heroes' pot stash and exits the movie aping her favorite villain from her favorite kind-of-sort-of Christmas movie. What happens at midnight Mass here is probably best left for a person to discover for oneself, although it's too tempting not to mention that the scene involves an ill-fated high that brings about an evil baby and a considerable guilt trip about the man hanging from the cross.

A movie like this demands some kind of grounding, and that's what is sorely missing from co-writer/director Jonathan Levine's comedy about three friends trying to have one last weird and wild Christmas Eve, before giving themselves over to the more pressing responsibilities of life. The movie itself is sometimes weird and never quite as wild as it imagines, but that's beside the point. The movie's comedy is so all over the place that it seems fully aware that some of its jokes will hit and about an equal amount of them will miss.

It would be correct in that rationale, although perhaps Levine and his fellow screenwriters Kyle Hunter, Ariel Shaffir, and Evan Goldberg were being a little generous in "miss" category. There are definitely more misses and incomplete ideas that could have been hits than there are hits here.

The movie goes for this material without hesitation or second-guessing, though, and that's something to admire. When the jokes here do work, that gung-ho attitude means they work with a deliriously logical sense of illogic, or maybe that sentiment should be reversed—a deliriously illogical sense of logic. Whatever the semantics, the movie's funniest scenes—like the one set during midnight Mass or a text-based conversation in which a happily married, straight man feels compelled to talk about a complete stranger's genitalia—follow a through line from one mistake to the next. That's part of the necessary grounding this sort of comedy needs.

It's important to note that the two aforementioned scenes revolve around one character, and it's also important to point out that the character in question is not the movie's central one. In theory at least, that character is Ethan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), whose parents were killed by a drunk driver over a decade ago. Since then, he and his best friends Isaac (Seth Rogen) and Chris (Anthony Mackie) have spent every Christmas Eve together in a drunken stupor (The irony is apparently missed by all involved).

The three have "mutually" agreed that this year's festivities will be their last. Isaac's wife Betsy (Jillian Bell) is nine-months pregnant, and Chris has become a famous football player, thanks to his recent use of steroids. Ethan has nothing. He and his girlfriend Diana (Lizzy Caplan) broke up three months ago because of his commitment issues, and he still hasn't gotten over her.

He has come across three tickets for an exclusive party later in the night. If the triumvirate's tradition is going to end, it might as well with a bang.

The major sticking point for the movie's foundation is that these characters and their separate stories never quite mesh. There's considerable variation in terms of both tone and weight between each of the central players.

Isaac is on a drug binge, because his wife's present was a box of "every drug," so the gags involving him are brought about by his increasing paranoia and deteriorating physical state. Chris becomes involved with the grinch (Ilana Glazer) who steals his drugs and wants to wreck his Christmas, and that story results in a series of chases that only serve to keep the friends apart long enough to undermine their relationship (They also don't distract from the fact that Chris' dilemma—feeling isolated from his teammates and embarrassed by his mother—isn't interesting). Ethan should be the movie's heart, but the movie spends so much time in pursuit of jokes that its efforts to find the sentimental side come across as forced and unconvincing (It doesn't help that the actors express discomfort instead of consolation during a crucial flashback).

What does work? A handful of scenes are genuinely funny, and a few of them are really, genuinely funny. Michael Shannon, playing the magical weed dealer with "a quiet intensity that makes people uncomfortable," handily walks away with the movie, because his performance never lets on that his character is in on the joke. The climactic party is a series of misses, although Miley Cyrus is amusing as she sings back-up to a miscalculated declaration of love.

The movie is slightly better than this review might suggest, and that's because The Night Before does have the boldness to embrace the somewhat random nature of this material and to commit to every joke. Whether or not those jokes work is an entirely different matter.

Copyright © 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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