The Night Before (2015) / Comedy
MPAA Rated: R for drug use and language throughout, some strong sexual content and graphic nudity
Running Time: 101 min.
Cast: Seth Rogen, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Anthony Mackie, Jillian Bell, Lizzy Caplan, Mindy Kaling, Michael Shannon, Lorraine Toussaint, Helene York, Ilana Glazer, Nathan Fielder
Small role: James Franco, Tracy Morgan, Miley Cyrus, Jason Jones, Randall Park
Director: Jonathan Levine
Screenplay: Jonathan Levine, Kyle Hunter, Ariel Shaffir, Evan Goldberg
Review published November 21, 2015
Isaac (Rogen, Steve Jobs), Ethan (Gordon-Levitt, The Walk), and Chris (Mackie, Love the Coopers) are friends since childhood who've made it a point, after Ethan's parents are killed by a drunk driver, to get together every Christmas Eve in order to party like there's no tomorrow. (Yes, they're going to commemorate someone else's drunken revelry that led to a tragedy that left one of them becoming an orphan by engaging in it themselves.) Now into their thirties and ready to get serious about family and career, they've decided that this year's night of debauchery will be their last. Knowing they should go out with a bang, Ethan manages to steal tickets to the biggest and most exclusive party in New York City. However, there are several factors that threaten to make the night not last, including Ethan's inability to get over his ex (Caplan, The Interview), dad-to-be Isaac's overconsumption of the box of various drugs his nine-months-pregnant wife (Bell, Goosebumps) has given him, and burgeoning football star Chris wanting to desperately to score points with the captains on his team by securing a stash of weed they've asked him to bring to the bash.
The Night Before operates on four main principles for nearly all of its comedy:
1. Drugs, whether imbibed or merely referenced, are always funny.
Having the men encounter a Dickensian ghost of past, present, and future isn't that amusing, but if he's also their drug supplier from their time of youth, it's a gas! Snorting copious amounts of coke and then getting a nosebleed into a woman's drink right before she imbibes is funny because, well, cokeheads get nosebleeds -- heehee! (OK, that she thought it was a Cran-tini is vaguely amusing, I'll admit). Hallucinating horrific faces onto people would be nightmarish under most circumstances, but because it's part of a psychedelic trip, it's just the stuff worthy of infinite giggles!
2. Referencing pop culture from one's childhood is always funny.
Having the three friends perform karaoke isn't funny, but if it's a novelty rap like "Christmas in Hollis" by Run DMC, it's funny! Visiting Chris's house to encounter his embarrassingly doting mother isn't particularly amusing, but if they go there in order to play 'Goldeneye' on the Nintendo 64, it's nudge-your-bro-next-to-you hilarious! Jumping off of a building isn't funny, but drop a reference to the fact that it's the way that Hans Gruber in Die Hard would have done it, and you'll have fits of laughter! Seeing someone booby-trap a sidewalk with toys isn't funny on it's own, but if the person who falls on his butt cries out that he's been, "Home Alone-d", you'll laugh because it's a reference you understand. (Home Alone is referenced a few times in the film, in fact).
3. Anything related to sex and bathroom functions is always funny. (Also, swear words).
Having Ethan get beat up by two guys in Santa suits isn't funny, so let's have him encounter them in the middle of public urination, while discussing whether or not they should also defecate in their pants -- now it's poop-your-pants funny! Freaking out at a packed cathedral while attending Midnight Mass wouldn't be very amusing, but vomiting in the middle of the aisle makes it comedy bliss! Finding out you have accidentally mixed up your phone with a female friend's isn't funny, but if the man starts to receive sexts and explicit junk shots that make a straight, married guy actually consider a sexual rendezvous with the sender, it's suddenly a comedy goldmine!
4. Celebrity cameos and name-dropping celebrities are always funny.
If you're going to name-drop Miley Cyrus (Bolt), make sure she's in the film, and that she also name-drops Hannah Montana while she's talking, because showing or naming people you recognize that you didn't know or expect in the movie is hilarious! (Not surprising she'd appear, since she's signed to RCA records, which is owned by Sony, who made the film). That goes for James Franco (True Story), who is on screen with Seth Rogen for the umpteenth time, playing himself -- er, I mean a sexually deviant version of himself, again, for the umpteenth time! And hey, Tracy Morgan (Top Five) is Santa Claus in a scene that's not funny unless you laugh because you know who Tracy Morgan is, and you think it's funny that he's dressed as Santa Claus!
The real problem with all of the above is that they all operate on the notion that being truly smart, witty or clever is too difficult. The people that are watching this film are totally high or drunk -- no need to kill their buzz with making them think about subtle ironies or incisive satire. Just keep pressing buttons of vulgarity and pop culture references to stimulate the happy/silly part of the brain that laughs at anything where we remember our inner man-children, and we'll just laugh and laugh and laugh. Alas, the film grates early and often, trying to be loud enough and crass enough to cover over the fact that, if volume and the lewdness-factor were at all toned down, we'd discover that The Night Before is nearly vacant of a single thoughtful or interesting idea that merits two minutes of our attention, much less two hours.
The Night Before is a mess of a movie, feeling like a jumble of comedy sketch ideas that don't have a central story to solidify, laying out there and flailing blindly about and hoping that in the continuous piling on of zaniness, that the manic slapstick will cause laughter to become contagious in the audience. We expect more from director Jonathan Levine (Warm Bodies, The Wackness), who directed Seth Rogen and Joseph Gordon-Levitt to better success with their previous collaboration, 50/50, and while attempts at sentimentality are here, they feel disingenuous when squeezed in between scene after scene of hard-R rated raunchiness for most of the run time.
Not that the film is complete travesty. Michael Shannon (99 Homes) gets a funny bit part as the lackadaisically droll but still earnestly interested drug dealer, making you wish he'd played a bigger role overall. While everyone else's performance is cranked to the max, he achieves most of his laughs by keeping the tone completely subdued by contrast, and it works quite well. The film does have a very appealing cast, with the bro-mantic leads seeming like they'd work well together if there were anything remotely funny for them to riff on in between the forced chaos. It's should be a slam dunk, but the writing team is just too lazy to bother with making the effort. While I don't find the film to be laugh-out-loud funny, there are still several moments in which the comedy seems like it is about to turn a corner and become something more than just a comedy for people giddy because they're drinking and smoking bowls right along with the men on the screen.
Forget this becoming a perennial favorite holiday classic. The Night Before is like opening a present, peering in the box, and finding nothing inside. Oh wait, that's not funny. Hmm -- it's like finding a pile of poop inside! Oh, no -- much funnier, that poop is only in there because Seth Rogen took shrooms and couldn't control his bowels, and your present was the only receptacle he could find! Wait, wait, wait! And when the lid of the box is opened, an electronic version of Sisqo's "Thong Song" plays from a little speaker within! Dude, I'm so funny! I could totally write a major Hollywood movie! Ho, ho, ho! Ooh, a Christmas reference! Get me a typewriter, stat!
If you found that last paragraph hilarious for anything other than the irony, this is the film for you. If not, drinking/smoking/snorting/shooting up along with the characters on the screen may be a requirement.
©2015 Vince Leo