It’s fitting that I saw “The Night Before” on the 25th anniversary of “Home Alone,” as it’s clearly a Christmas comedy clearly intended to appeal to those of us who grew up wishing we could be Kevin McCallister, with his funhouse of Wet Bandit booby-traps and his holiday of parent-free fun and life lessons. Of course, now a lot of us are parents ourselves, or are old enough that we could be, so, for us, writer/director Jonathan Levine has created a holiday movie that shimmers with brazenly adult humor and a childlike sense of wonder.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Seth Rogen from Levine’s cancer comedy “50/50” reunite and loop in Marvel Cinematic Universe star Anthony Mackie to play an unlikely trio of childhood friends. When a December drunken driving accident leaves Ethan (Gordon-Levitt) orphaned, his best friends Isaac (Rogen) and Chris (Mackie) proclaim a new Christmas Eve tradition, where the three will frolic from Manhattan tourist attractions to Chinese restaurants (a nod to Jewish New Yorker custom) and holiday-themed karaoke. But 14 years later, this is their last holiday hoorah. And as they traverse the Big Apple in search of the epic and super-exclusive party The Nutcracker’s Ball, each of these “ride-or-die homies” will be forced to face their own insecurities, and will be rewarded with a bit of Christmas magic.
Rogen’s arc involves his settled-down lawyer preparing for the arrival of his first child. But when Isaac’s pregnant wife (“22 Jump Street” scene-stealer Jillian Bell) gives him a box of drugs and the go-ahead to take a night off from responsibility, Isaac soon spirals into a complete panic over parenthood, accented by a martini spiked with his blood, mysterious dick pics and harrowing hallucinations of his yet-to-be-born daughter’s future as a stripper. Gordon-Levitt’s arc is less successful, leaning hard on tropes like the stuck-in-a-rut aspiring musician and that old gem about snagging a great girlfriend (“The Interview’s” Lizzy Caplan) being a symbol of growth as a human. (Both relegated to sidekick roles, Bell and Caplan are owed a formal apology for this unfortunate waste of their comedy chops.) But Mackie’s thread is so thin, it’s barely there.
Introduced as a NFL player who’s career is taking off thanks to his social media game and his use of steroids, Chris is set up to learn a lesson about the really important things in life, like living authentically and loving your true friends over the false friends of fame and the lure of a Red Bull-sponsored stretch Hummer limo. However, “The Night Before” is so stuffed with goodies — like cameos sure to thrill comedy nerds, musical numbers that are more charming than impressive, and zany action sequences involving sleighs, parkour and SantaCon dirtbags — that there’s not much room for development. So Mackie’s arc feels more like an outline than a story.
Levine has always had a sentimental streak in his work. And while a holiday movie seems a great outlet for that, he fails to work it into the wacky and whimsical world he sets up in its rousing and rhyme-filled introduction. Instead, the comedy slows to a crawl so that numerous heart-to-heart talks can be had. The two warring tones make the film feel disjointed and rambling. Stoner comedy and earnest sentiment need not be mutually exclusive (John Cho and Kal Penn proved that in 2011 with “A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas”). But “The Wackness” director mostly shies away from letting his heroes be wacky in their tender moments, and so comedy is sacrificed for schmaltz.
Still, the comedy is pretty solid. As ever on point as a stoner, Rogen brings lots of energy and profane humor into the mix, whether he’s getting paranoid at midnight mass or awkwardly sexting a long-donged stranger. Mackie embodies the egomaniac role with aplomb, but is at his best when paired with wild card Ilana Glazer of “Broad City” fame, whose cameo will not disappoint fans of her outlandish gags. Miscast as a dejected loner, Gordon-Levitt peaks early, decked out in an embarrassing elf uniform for a soul-crushing job. But it’s hard to be bothered once Michael Shannon shows up as a sketchy yet weirdly lovable pot dealer named Mr. Green.
Shannon’s signature intensity is channeled Gene Wilder-style into his unsettling holiday harbinger who deals out weeds of Christmas past, present and future. Those around him goof it up for laughs, but Shannon slays with restraint, dead eyes and a mangy beard. I’d watch this movie again, immediately, and all because Shannon is so oddly amusing in it.
All in all, “The Night Before” is a mixed bag. It’s chock-full of holiday cheer, fun performances and cheeky allusions, and it’s blissfully free of cynicism. But it’s a bit of a mess, with a clunky pace, muddled plot and thinly sketched trifecta of heroes. Yet for all its flaws, it’d still be a good time with good friends.
“The Night Before” opens Friday nationwide.
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