A film review by Craig J. Koban December 9, 2015

THE NIGHT BEFORE jj
½   

2015, R, 101 mins.

 

Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Ethan  /  Seth Rogen as Isaac  /  Jillian Bell as Betsy  /  Anthony Mackie as Chris  /  Lizzy Caplan as Diana  /  Aaron Hill as Tommy Owens  /  Heléne Yorke as Cindy  /  Ilana Glazer as Rebecca Grinch  /  Tracy Morgan as Narrator/Santa

Directed by Jonathan Levine  /  Screenplay by Evan Goldberg, Kyle Hunter, Jonathan Levine and Ariel Shaffir

I think that it's decidedly hard to make a lewd and crude hard R-rated comedy that also has sweetness and sentimentality to it.  It’s also extremely hard to make a scatological laugh fest that also tugs at your heartstrings as a Christmas film.  

That seems like one awfully tall order to fill, but director Jonathan Levine (who managed to make a film about a cancer patient that was both hysterical and sobering in 50/50) seems equal to the unique challenge presented in THE NIGHT BEFORE.  The film – which revolves around an annual reunion of three childhood friends during Christmas Eve – contains several laugh out loud moments of merriment and some individual scenes of dramatic introspection, but the Yuletide dramedy as a whole feels mostly unbalanced and confused as to its own tone. 

The premise itself is kind of a downer, when one thinks about it, and is steeped in personal tragedy.  Many years ago Ethan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) became an orphan when his parents were killed in a dreadful car accident.  Like all BFFs do, his bosom buddies in Isaac (Seth Rogen) and Chris (Anthony Mackie) swoop in to console their grief stricken friend and decide that they will start their own unique annual pact: They form their own wacky Christmas Eve tradition to visit some of their favorite establishments during their evening out, and they continued to do this into the present day.  Flashforward to the present and the once young men have become adults with multiple responsibilities.  Isaac is expecting his very first baby with his wife Betsy (Jillian Bell) and Chris has forged out a career in the NFL and has become a social media darling.  Ethan himself still seems depressed over his parent’s deaths, but he seems to have an even more difficult time getting over the loss of his ex, Diana (Lizzy Caplan). 

 

 

Realizing that time is not a luxury that any of the men truly possess anymore, Isaac, Chris, and Ethan decide to give their Christmas Eve bromance tradition one last go.  Their evening is made all the more exciting based on the fact that Ethan was able to – albeit illegally – obtain tickets to one of the most exclusive Christmas parties in town…and one that the gang has been trying to get into for years.  With a newfound sense of purpose – not to mention the sense of bitter sweetness in knowing that this year will be their last to party together – the trio embark on the town with a hearty passion, which is made all the heartier considering that Isaac’s wife has given him a hall pass, so to speak, and is allowing her hubby to do whatever he feels like.  She’s such a loving and understanding spouse that she even gives Isaac a small Christmas Eve pre-party gift…of multiple mood altering drugs for he and his pals to take.  Wacky shenanigans predictably ensue. 

Like many past films featuring Seth Rogen and his band of merry misfits, THE NIGHT BEFORE manages have a semblance of a heart amidst all of its endless raunch.  Perhaps the most apt manner of describing the film would be that it's a stoner comedy crossed with a light Christmas drama.  The film ultimately works on a pure level of its casting and the thankless level of unforced camaraderie and chemistry that the stars have with one another.  Yes, Rogen is playing his umpteenth man-child pothead character that gets in way, way over his head, but he’s so deliriously and consistently good at playing lovable losers that I almost can’t fault him for returning to the comedic well yet again.  Rogen is the source of the best sustained laughs in THE NIGHT BEFORE, especially when he trips badly and early on an awful mixture of drugs that his wife gifted to him, leading to him becoming a perpetually and ever increasingly sweaty and paranoid buffoon.  Part of the film’s sense of comedic intensity is watching Rogen completely embrace the sheer zaniness of his character’s plight and condition with a no hold’s barred tenacity.  He’s rarely had so much unbridled madcap energy in a film before. 

Rogen is paired quite well with Gordon-Levitt (both re-teaming after 50/50) and Mackie, and the two latter actors are a nice restrained compliment to the capricious drugged out energy that Rogen brings to the film.  Lesser actors would have made Ethan and Chris fade into the background of most scenes, but Gordon-Levitt and Mackie have the necessary thespian chops to generate their own well earned laughs while submerging a bit of gravity in the film as well.  Then there is some extremely out of left field casting in THE NIGHT BEFORE, like a brilliantly gonzo turn by the great Michael Shannon, whom plays Mr. Green, a drug dealer that has an almost magical talent for appearing and disappearing when Ethan, Isaac, and Chris least expect it.  There are very few actors that can generate legitimate belly laughs while coming off as eerily unnerving as well as Shannon does here.  

Now, it could easily be argued that THE NIGHT BEFORE certainly doesn’t re-invent the wheel as far as these types of comedies are concerned, which is why it’s sometimes tainted with a been-there, done-that feel.  The film contains the overused themes of immature and irresponsible men that try to find ways to maintain their friendship while trying to embrace adulthood and…well…maturity.  Familiar themes notwithstanding, the real obvious issue with THE NIGHT BEFORE is that Levine and his writers (four in total) get too bogged down in too many subplots, some of which actually begin to subvert the film’s comic momentum and pacing.  The story thread of Ethan trying to rekindle his lost romance with Diana has an unexpected tenderness to it that the actors sell well, but it sometimes grinds the film to a screeching halt.  Then there is the recurring thread of Chris using steroids to keep himself as a viable NFL superstar that you just know will become a sore spot for his buddies when they inconveniently find out.  There’s nothing inherently wrong with a film like this having some dramatic ambition, but THE NIGHT BEFORE feels more labored and telegraphed in its attempts to achieve such moving high points. 

That, and for as many deeply amusing moments that are in the film there’s several more that kind of fall flat.  Even though it’s an unmitigated hoot seeing Rogen’s Jewish character accidentally puking while attending a Catholic Church mass during his bout with intoxication, it’s not quite so funny seeing him drip cocaine-laced nose blood into a girl’s drink at a bar in an earlier and painfully unfunny scene.  There’s a later scene featuring a down-on-his luck Ethan getting into a fistfight with some drunken department store Santa Clauses that never becomes as sidesplitting as the film thinks.  More often than not, THE NIGHT BEFORE tries perhaps too hard to embrace its bawdiness.  Besides, it becomes really hard to truly care for these men and their plights when many of the film’s moments of soul searching drama are pigeonholed in-between sequences with vomiting, bathroom stall sex, texted pictures of male genitalia, and so forth. 

THE NIGHT BEFORE is a very hard film to hate.  There are definitely sustained laughs here and the team of Rogen, Mackie and Gordon-Levitt make their respective characters simmer with an authenticity despite some the of utter craziness that befalls them during the course of their story.  However, is the film a worthwhile and memorable addition to the already long pantheon of established Christmas comedy classics?  Not particularly.  THE NIGHT BEFORE is simply too uneven and unsure of itself to be considered an annual viewing tradition for you during the holidays.  The spirit of the film is there and the actors are uniformly on point, but the overall script itself is a re-write or two away from being truly ready for prime time.  There’s a great Christmas comedy lurking in here...looking to come out. 

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