Brazen holiday comedy “The Night Before” is a hangover wrapped in gold foil. Familiar year-end experiences — partying, romantic desperation, escapism, and heavy reckoning with the past and future — are amped up to absurd levels as three old friends try to get their individual and collective lives on track. The film is a paean to the value of friendship, one made less saccharine by also honoring the idea of friends who’ll point out that your shit is getting tired.
Opening as a literal storybook, this riff on “‘Twas The Night Before Christmas” is therefore relieved of any responsibility to adhere to realism. In fact, since some of the film’s flights of fancy are its highest points, it might benefit from daring to go even further out on a few limbs. Always energetic like the wild whoop of a bachelor party, the lights burn brightest when “The Night Before” indulges in big goofs and kooky tangents.
“Scrooged” seems to be the major template, as director Jonathan Levine (“50/50,” “Warm Bodies”) dips into big physical comedy. Seth Rogen is dragged through Manhattan streets by horses, and the weirdness of a smoke-wreathed version of the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future are rolled into one. Michael Shannon is a morose delight in that role, acting as both one of the film’s strangest comic elements and its primary grounding force.
Rogen is Isaac, who with friend Chris (Anthony Mackie), is getting tired of watching 30-something buddy Ethan, orphaned in college, spin his wheels in life. For over a decade, the drinking crew has reaffirmed their familial friendship each year with a holiday blowout. But Chris is newly famous as a football player having his best-ever year, and the married Isaac is about to have a child. Ethan, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, has lost his best chance at love, and his so-called creative life is an empty one.
Despite the fact that two members of the trip have new priorities, the three friends agree to one last holiday bash — mostly so Isaac and Chris can let Ethan down easy before they move on with their lives. Then the night acquires the rosy glow of fulfilled dreams when Ethan steals tickets to the holiday party they’ve been shut out of for years.
Maybe it’s just the encroaching life changes, but for a crew that has been together for such a long time, the triangle of Rogen, Mackie and Levitt doesn’t always connect as friends with a deep history. They’ve got the bickering down, but there’s not much room for a real sense of camaraderie, and underneath all the levity is the sense that “The Night Before” is trying hard to create something that is just out of its grasp.
But there are good moments with Mackie, Levitt, and Rogen, which see the actors ribbing each other in a gently comic manner. All three are pros in their own right, with Joseph Gordon-Levitt mining the best laughs from his more downtrodden moments, as when playing a disgruntled party elf, and Anthony Mackie digging into the corners of anxieties that come with trying to impress a new group of friends. And Rogen, in particular, pushes his expressiveness and physical performance to elastic new limits.
Even when the headlining trio doesn’t connect, there’s a lively parade of supporting roles and cameos. A would-be showstopper sequence built around Miley Cyrus mostly fizzles as the arc of the ensuing gag can be traced before it ever takes flight,. But Lizzy Caplan, as the woman Ethan realizes he should have worked harder to keep, plays the role not just as the “cool girl” archetype but as possibly the most “real”, and therefore the most refreshing person in the movie.
Complementing Caplan’s work, Isaac’s wife Betsy, played by Jillian Bell, completely avoids the sort of controlling that shrew audiences are often asked to suffer through – generally, in comedies that find characters at that tipping point between carefree and responsible lives. Bell is a consistently great presence, and her character gets the film’s weirdness going by handing Isaac a gift box with “every drug in the whole world.”
Some of the incidental gags land soft. A violent altercation with a couple of drunk Santas is more like a sidewalk stumble. Mindy Kaling is mostly squandered as a friend of Ethan’s ex. But Ilana Glazer steals scenes as a big-screen analog to her “Broad City” character — one possessed of even more crazed impulsiveness than her small-screen counterpart.
The go-for-broke zip of the film’s high points, when slowed down to navigate heavier emotional territory, doesn’t turn into a nimble step. Once the drugs and the insecurities really kick in, “The Night Before” takes on a sickly pall that even leans towards stressful. There’s the comedy of awkwardness and anxiety, and then there’s Seth Rogen, wrapped in a Hannukkah sweater, Psilocybin all but dripping from his pores, as he clings to the edge of sanity during a Christmas Eve mass in front of his in-laws.
Levine and the cast recover in the home stretch thanks to an endgame that has more strange holiday whimsy and genuine affection than it does band sentiment, but the film’s mishmash of earnest emotions and weird comedy flourishes never quite feels like a proper cocktail. [B]