The Night Before *1/2

A good cast and an interesting director cannot salvage this holiday “comedy.”

Is it worth $10? No

“The Night Before” is a disaster, a mess from beginning to end. It wants to be warm and sentimental, yet it tries to undercut that constantly with gross-out gags and a mean streak. The lighter and darker aspects are meant to complement each other, but they cancel each other out instead, and the film ends up accomplishing nothing. 

Ethan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), Isaac (Seth Rogen), and Chris (Anthony Mackie) have been friends since high school. After a tragic accident takes the lives of Ethan’s parents right before Christmas, Isaac and Chris take Ethan under their wings. To cheer him up, the friends embark on an odyssey of partying and debauchery on Christmas Eve. This quickly becomes an annual tradition. But as the years go by, the boys naturally begin to grow apart. Realizing this, the group decides to make the coming Christmas Eve party their last one. And since it is their final night out, they’re going to make sure to go out with a bang.

The plot synopsis itself already points to the film’s tone problem. Starting a Christmas themed comedy with the death (though it happens off-screen) of the main character’s parents is a downer that the film never really recovers from, and it careens uneasily between poles of realism and comedy, light and dark, throughout. When something lighthearted happens, it’s undercut by something mean. When the humor is supposed to bite, it’s smothered by schmaltz. “Bad Santa,” which expertly mixed cynicism and pathos, this is not. Director Jonathan Levine and his stable of writers (Kyle Hunter, Ariel Shaffir, and longtime Rogen cohort Evan Goldberg) simply never find the right balance for the movie, and we the audience suffer for it.

Tone is tricky, and balancing it is tough, so the shifts in them are almost forgivable. But half-assed writing is not. For example, as a thank you for being such a “rock” during her pregnancy, Isaac’s wife Betsy (Jillian Bell) gives him an early gift before going out: a box of assorted drugs. We’re just supposed to accept this behavior as normal. If Isaac had been established as some kind of connoisseur of illicit substances which he gave up for his wife, then this “reward” might make sense; however, this is not the case, so why does she gift him a box of drugs? It’s because the filmmakers need a cheap excuse to get Isaac high and have him do wacky things for the rest of the film.

The movie even has an element of the fantastic to it, represented by the recurring character of Mr. Green (Michael Shannon). Normally, this could be interesting, but here it’s just further proof of the film’s myriad problems. The filmmakers could not be bothered to figure out who or what Mr. Green is. He is (SPOILER ALERT) the ghost of Christmas past, present, and future, but then he’s an angel who has to earn his wings, and, by film’s end, he’s revealed to also be the son of Santa Clause. (SPOILER ENDS) The filmmaker’s reticence (or inability) to choose what he is points to the general slapdash nature of the whole production.

Did I also mention that Mr. Green is a pot dealer? Get it? Mr. Green? Ha ha!? No.

Despite its problems, “The Night Before” still has a few positives going for it. There is a takeoff on the piano sequence from “Big” that has the three friends performing Kanye West’s “Runaway” instead of “Chopsticks,” which eventually turns into a montage set to the actual song. This scene is both funny and energetic, something that, sadly, eludes most of the rest of the film.

I also appreciated how the character of Betsy was written. She is not the shrill shrew that most wife characters are relegated to in “R” rated comedies. Here, she doesn’t give her husband a hard time for wanting to go out and party, and the way she reacts to a late film reveal from Isaac is sweet and understanding.

And a few moments at the end also come off as genuine and thoughtful. A penultimate scene between Ethan and his ex-girlfriend (Lizzy Caplan) nails the weird and sweet tone the movie had been going for and heretofore failed to achieve. But it’s a case of too little, too late.

Maybe I just didn’t “get” the movie. Humor is subjective. What you find funny, I might not, and vice versa. But I wasn’t the only one who didn’t enjoy the film. Since there’s strength in numbers, I’ll finish up by describing the audience’s reaction at my screening: waning laughter with a smattering of chuckles.

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