Silver Screen: The Night Before ***
The holidays tend to conjure up equal parts sentimentality and cynicism. The Christmas comedy The Night Before makes an admirable attempt to strike a balance between the two. It doesn’t entirely succeed, perhaps because it indulges in cynicism more than it explores it, but if the movie is a failure, it’s a gentle, pleasant one. It’s a bit like store-bought eggnog— not great, but good enough to satisfy at the right time of year.
Director and cowriter Jonathan Levine was also responsible for the wry, genuinely affecting cancer dramedy Fifty/Fifty. Here he reteams Fifty/Fifty costars Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Seth Rogen, and throws in the über-charming Anthony Mackie for good measure.
The trio plays high-school pals who started an annual tradition after Ethan (Gordon-Levitt) lost his parents in a drunk-driving accident at age nineteen. To buoy their best bud’s spirits, Isaac (Rogen) and Chris (Mackie) take Ethan out every year for a Christmas Eve romp where they wear dumb sweaters, get boozy, sing karaoke, and participate in a bevy of disparate Christmas traditions.
More than a decade later, the charm has worn off for Isaac and Chris. The former is expecting a child with his refreshingly good-natured wife (Jillian Bell) and the latter has become an NFL star. Ethan is developmentally stunted. He works menial jobs, doesn’t even attempt to get his stalled music career going, and let the love of his life (Lizzy Caplan) get away because he refused to commit. Isaac and Chris agree to one last holiday blowout, which Ethan plans to make extra special by securing three tickets to a legendary secret holiday party full of drugs and celebrities called the Nutcracker Ball.
The Night Before is a one-crazy-night comedy, with the boys careening around the city on a series of goofy adventures en route to Yuletide Valhalla. Even as the exploits become increasingly unlikely— even literally fantastical, thanks to a mysterious weed dealer (Michael Shannon) with cryptic wisdom to share— the plot grinds up against frustrating realism. They can’t get to the party because drugged-up Isaac loses his phone and Chris is forever waiting around to score yet more drugs for his NFL friends.
If I wanted to spend a whole night looking for a lost phone and waiting for an unreliable drug dealer to show up, I could just go to any given college party.
The hijinks are a mixed bag of presents and coal-stuffed stockings. Straightlaced Isaac overindulges in drugs that bring his parental insecurities screaming to the surface in a series of funny scenes, which culminates with him humiliating his family at midnight Mass while wearing a Star of David sweater. Both Ethan’s dead parents and his romance feel more like plot devices than plot, but Gordon-Levitt and Caplan make it work anyway. Poor Mackie, though, seems to be stranded from some other, much worse movie about an athlete struggling with steroid abuse, and his storyline about the perils of fame could hardly be more unsympathetic and unrelatable.
The jokes, scattershot as they are, work well enough to keep the movie humming along, although Levine’s insistence on meta-references to every classic Christmas film becomes tiresome long before the frustrating distraction of Ilana Glazer’s character, an inexplicable self-appointed Grinch who shows up just to provide conflict where none exists. By the end of the movie, which cops out by inflating the climax with a series of increasingly dumb celebrity cameos, the whole thing starts to feel like a pop-culture meat-grinder that exists only to repackage stale leftovers. (Sidenote: Has anyone in history ever seemed more delighted to play themselves than James Franco?)
Just as The Night Before threatens to tip into full-on insufferability, a flashback scene reminds us that the whole movie is about the camaraderie between three friends. These smaller, more intimate scenes are infinitely funnier and more charming than all the malarkey about Miley Cyrus trying to help Ethan hook up or Chris’s conflicts with a Tom Brady-esque star quarterback. Just as the boys have become disconnected from their own values, Levine loses sight of what works so well about his movie. Too many distractions, celebrity cameos, and smug self-awareness threaten to overshadow a warmhearted movie with three terrific leads and a wonderful supporting cast.
Oh come on, all ye faithful, it was already a wonderful life.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.