Ill-Conceived "The Night Before" Goes Up In Smoke

Between writer-director Jonathan Levine and actors Seth Rogen, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Anthony Mackie, Jillian Bell, and Michael Shannon, every name atop Christmas farce “The Night Before” suggests quality. Levine, Rogen, and Gordon-Levitt have done it before with cancer comedy “50/50,” a warm, sweet, hilarious coming-of-ager that was one of the very best films of 2011. Fling even more talent into the mix and, on paper, “The Night Before” is a holiday classic waiting in the wings.

Instead, the movie uses said paper for rolling purposes, beginning as an uninspired stoner goof-off and devolving from there. It’s about as good as “A Very Harold & Kumar Christmas,” which is to say not very, leaning all too heavily on drug use for comedy and tired plotting to move its one-dimensional characters around New York City over the course of one long, illicit substance-fueled night.

As relayed in an opening voiceover, Ethan (Gordon-Levitt) lost his parents to a car accident on Christmas Eve 2001, leaving his two best friends Isaac (Rogen) and Chris (Mackie) to begin a tradition of spending the holiday with him. A decade and a half later, adulthood has brought the trio’s custom of Christmas debauchery to its final stand, with Isaac about to have a child with his wife Betsy (Bell), and Chris finding stardom in professional football.

But all three are mostly unlikable twerps, with Ethan outright stealing tickets to the mythical Christmas party he and his friends have failed to locate over the years. He’s also been an insufferable blowhard to his now ex-girlfriend (Lizzy Caplan), with Chris going equally hard in treating his loved ones like garbage.

This would all be defensible if the picture was just going for bawdiness, but it badly wants to be emotionally resonant. It’s not.

In between frantic grabs at our heartstrings, the comedy vacillates between dumb and noxious, bottoming out with a coked up Rogen nose-bleeding into the cocktail of an unwitting female friend (Mindy Kaling). Some of film’s funniest material is accidental, like its leads frequently separating only to run into each other an hour or two later, making Manhattan out to be about the size of a Best Buy.

Michael Shannon as a prophetic weed dealer is a highlight, but his disconnected scenes only underline the screenplay’s clunky, episodic nature. It all reeks of comedic finger-painting, a loosely drawn hangout movie without a single character worth hanging out with. Not even a late-game appearance from James Franco elicits much of a reaction, an appearance that repeats gay jokes from “This Is The End” and is weirdly overshadowed by a dueling cameo from pop star Miley Cyrus.

“The Night Before” is, in spirit, the “Hangover” Christmas special no one asked for, apparently pieced together from bits that weren’t good enough for better movies but acceptable for the purposes of swindling viewers out of a $10 movie ticket. It’s not a total wreck – the cast is too gifted to not deliver a few fun moments, like an energetic performance of Kanye West’s “Runaway” – but it is a fender bender, an inconvenience of a movie that didn’t have to be.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ out of ★★★★★ (Not So Good)

Release Date: November 20, 2015
Studio: Columbia Pictures (Sony)
Director: Jonathan Levine
Screenwriter: Jonathan Levine, Evan Goldberg, Kyle Hunter, Ariel Shaffir
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, Anthony Mackie, Lizzy Caplan, Jillian Bell, Michael Shannon, Mindy Kaling
MPAA Rating: R (for drug use and language throughout, some strong sexual content and graphic nudity)