Written by: Sean Wall
You know the holiday drill: If you’re nice all year long, you’ll wake up to a Christmas-morning bounty in your stocking. If you’re naughty, all you can look forward to is a lump of coal. And if you fall somewhere in between?
Well, then you get something like “The Night Before,” an uneven R-rated Christmas comedy that’s more enjoyable than, say, your Nana’s fruitcake, but which at the same time doesn’t feel quite like the dose of memorable holiday cheer it could have been.
Directed by Jonathan Levine (“50/50,” “Warm Bodies”), it’s a film with undeniable heart, built as it is on a promising yuletide premise. It’s also got an appealing cast, from top to bottom. The problem is with the scattered, rambling script, which is content simply to coast along shallowly on that setup — punctuated by no small amount of crude stoner humor — rather than rolling up its sleeves and digging deep.
Seth Rogen, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and New Orleans’ Anthony Mackie star, playing three longtime bros who — following the accidental death years earlier of the parents of Gordon-Levitt’s character — have decided to forge their own “family” tradition. The basic idea: Every Christmas Eve, they drop everything and reunite for a night of considerable Christmas Eve debauchery.
But this year is different. After 14 years of being there for one another — but with real life demanding more time than ever, in the form of impending fatherhood, work, etc. — they’ve decided that this year will mark their last year of Christmas carousing. Naturally, they want to make it count.
Ostensibly, their goal is to finally crash the elusive Nutcracker Ball, a legendarily hip Christmas Eve party that has for years been their Great White Whale. For the movie’s purposes, it’s really just an excuse to send them careening drunkenly through New York City.
Along the way, we get the predictable booze-fueled hijinks. We get celebrity cameos. We get your accidental ingestion of too many illegal drugs. We get spilled champagne, spilled emotions and spilled bodily fluids. “The Night Before” is not just a search for that party, it’s Ethan looking for love with Diana (Lizzy Caplan), the girl he shouldn’t have dumped. It’s a bit of a coming-of-age tale. And it’s hilarious, with both an edge and an enormous soft side.
The film is full of cameos, from Tracy Morgan to James Franco to Mindy Kaling as Diana’s friend, who accurately states, “No one wants to drink cocaine blood,” after Isaac’s nosebleed drips into her martini. That’s before the completely drugged-out expectant father and Jewish Isaac busts up midnight Mass.
At the same church service, Isaac is convinced that an infant is dropping f-bombs in his direction. Which is completely in character with the sense of humor of “The Night Before.” The soulful Gordon-Levitt adds dramatic heft amid the buffoonery, playing a heartbreakingly adrift young man still grappling with his parents’ deaths. His deft balancing of comedy and quiet tragedy provides the film with its central emotional throughline.
Then there’s Mackie, who adds a shot of undeniable cool, while also seizing the opportunity to show that — although he’s probably known by most moviegoers as the Falcon in the “Avengers” movies — he’s every bit as capable of wielding a punch line as he is of throwing a punch.
On the plus side, “The Night Before” can be counted on to be more well received than the last film for which Rogen, Goldberg and Caplan teamed up. That would be “The Interview,” a political comedy that had been scheduled for a Christmas day release last year — until, that is, Kim Jong Un decided to play Scrooge. We all know how that ended up.
At least nobody will have to worry about being blown to smithereens for going to go see “The Night Before.” So it’s got that going for it. And while that beats the heck out of a lump of coal, it’s not exactly a Christmas miracle, either.