Sunday, December 6, 2015

The Night Before

Alternate Title:  The Stoner, The Flaker, The PED Taker

One sentence synopsis:     Three adult friends celebrate Christmas together for the last time.

Things Havoc liked: I've not had the best luck with comedies on this little project, but one of the big exceptions was 2013's This is the End, a Seth Rogan movie which spawned, among other things, my... ahem... review... of the unreleased Interview. I effectively went into This is the End on a dare, but it turned out to be a bloody, disgusting, sick black comedy of the sort that I can really appreciate, and so when Rogan showed up again with a new R-rated comedy featuring significantly upgraded characters, I was down. So, surprisingly perhaps, were others. This time, rather than the apocalypse, Rogan's target is the Christmas spirit, and since I'm the sort of sick bastard who likes a good awful Christmas movie in the company of some good actors, it sounded like just the dish after the twin disappointments of Hunger Games and Bond.

The Night Before is the story of three high school friends, now adults of varying levels of success. Ethan Miller (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a thirty-something slacker coasting through his life, whose parents' deaths in a car wreck at age 19 triggered the establishment of a Christmas tradition whereby the three of them hang out together, partying throughout New York while attempting to gain access to the near-mythical Nutcracker Ball, a legendarily exclusive super-party run by god-knows-who, put on in a secret location on Christmas Eve, where all manner of debauched fun is supposed to be taking place. Ethan is the center of the film, which is fine by me, given Gordon-Levitt's pedigree, and is also the one with the deepest issues being masked by the forced cheer, to the point where the prospect of the tradition ending and leaving him alone upsets him enough that he gets into drunken fights with Santa-dressed pub crawlers (including Jason Manzoukas, one of my favorite podcasters) for disrespecting the meaning of Christmas. The tradition in question is ending because, unlike Ethan, his friends, Isaac Greenberg (Seth Rogan) and Chris Roberts (Anthony Mackie), have moved on with their lives. The former is a Jewish husband and expectant father, whose wife provides him with a cavalcade of hard drugs to enjoy the night with, and who spends the night getting so deliriously high that he winds up talking to a nativity scene in front of a Church and vomiting in the middle of a Midnight Mass while screaming that he didn't crucify the Messiah (before, later, crucifying the Messiah). The latter is a professional football player (what position and team are unrecorded, but I must assume the Giants), who is experiencing a career renaissance thanks to a new diet and workout regimen, a strong presence on Social Media, and approximately all of the steroids ever. As a side note, this is now the second movie in which I've seen Anthony Mackie indulge in massive steroid abuse for laughs. Statistics like these really keep me going during the darker times of the film calendar.

And really, that's all there is to The Night Before, the story of these three bros and the night they have on their last Christmas party. Along the way, wacky hijinx ensue, as Chris keeps getting his weed stolen by a grinchy hipster douche-girl named Rebecca (Ilana Glazer), whom he alternately chases across New York and has sex with in nightclub bathrooms, Isaac gets more and more transcendentally fucked up on a series of hard drugs until he starts recording coked-out rants about the mortal terror of his impending fatherhood, all while receiving pictures of some random guy's penis on his phone, and Ethan tries, through a series of contrivances and bad ideas, to reconnect with his ex-girlfriend Diana (Lizzy Caplan). Along the way, they meet a cavalcade of strange characters played by strange character actors, including James Franco, playing... well... playing James Franco, best I can tell, as well as stable Seth Rogan actors Mindy Kaling and Randal Park (who played Kim Jong Un in last year's semi-unwatched The Interview), and, of all people, the increasingly ubiquitous Michael Shannon, who plays a chronically-stoned-to-hell Pot dealer/philosopher named Mr. Green, who operates out of his hotboxed Oldsmobile and dispenses the sort of creepy batshit wisdom that only makes sense to those who have just smoked gargantuan amounts of nuclear-grade weed. I love Michael Shannon, and he is the best thing in this movie by far, using that intense stare of his to radiate possible menace while offering pot and advice in equal measure.

Things Havoc disliked: There's a certain moral sensibility to this movie, despite all the violence, drugs, humiliation, and R-rated humor, which is par for the course as far as Seth Rogan movies are concerned. His last collaboration with Joseph Gordon-Levitt, the underrated 50/50, had something similar, as did This is the End, despite the cannibalism, bestiality, and devil-rape (fun for the whole family!). This movie has it too, with the characters being taught life lessons about the meaning of Christmas and so on, but the result this time around is a little less well-made than the previous films were. I don't object to having a gooey moral center in the middle of a drugs-and-bodily-fluids comedy, not at all, but the lessons here are a bit forced, particularly for Mackie's Chris, who I think is supposed to learn that steroids are bad and that the rest of the team he's trying to impress are douchebags, but the sequences in which he's supposed to learn this are glossed over so quickly that I wasn't sure why, or even if he decided at the end to turn back towards Jesus or whatever the point of all that was. His mother, played by the wonderful Lorraine Toussaint, gets a few good lines, but really has no purpose in the movie other than to shame Ethan and Isaac for respectively letting his girlfriend go, and for being a drug-addled wretch (which at the moment, he is). Everyone else's plots resolve themselves in a reasonably perfunctory fashion, despite a standout cameo by Miley Cyrus of all people. Lessons are learned, friendships restored, Deus Ex Machinas are relied on (in one case quite explicitly), and everyone goes home for Christmas dinner.

And really, what keeps The Night Before from being a great film is not anything the characters do, but what they don't do. The movie's "message" is woven into the film a little tighter than before, as the characters openly discuss their problems rather than letting the sequences showcase them. This isn't a terrible thing, but it means that the film feels like it's tacking the low-brow sequences onto a Christmas movie, rather than tacking Christmas spirit onto a low-brow comedy. Bear in mind, This is the End involved douchebags being ripped apart by cannibals and demons, while those who exhibited righteousness in any form were raptured up to Heaven by direct act of God to party for all eternity with weed and the Backstreet Boys. Subtlety isn't a requirement here. But it feels like the movie spends a little too much time making sure you understand that it's really a wholesome family film at heart, before getting back to people bleeding into one another's drinks, cussing out their unborn children, and stapling people to trees.

Final thoughts:  The Night Before is a well made movie, funny in certain parts, with one or two really memorable lines and scenes, but it is not a classic comedy for the ages, not the way Pineapple Express or This is the End or The 40-Year-Old Virgin were. It tells its jokes, preaches its lesson, bows to a round of applause, and departs the stage with some grace, and while that's a lot more than many films manage to do, it's not exactly the stuff of legend. Still, this year has produced its share of both middling movies and middling comedy, and The Night Before is superior to both, a movie that is funny for its entire run time and leaves enough of a memory to merit a watch. Don't look to find it on a list of the best movies of the year. But if you're interested in seeing something you can just relax to and have some laughs, then you could do a whole lot worse than watch three not so wise men try to survive a single crazy night.
Final Score:  6.5/10

Next Time:  Per a reader request, Batman, the Hulk, and Sabretooth team up to tackle gangs of pedophile priests.

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