Twas the night before Christmas and I can’t be bothered thinking up a clever way to finish this sentence. I must have lost my wit in the vacuum of creativity that is The Night Before. A lethargic slog from a sub-Judd Apatow stable, The Night Before concerns the last Christmas Eve bender enjoyed by the three-way bromance of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogan and Anthony Mackie.
Issac (Rogan) and Chris (Mackie) are moving on with their lives and can no longer spend their December 24ths doped up on weed and belting out Kanye West songs on giant keyboards in children’s stores. Ethan (Gordon-Levitt) is struggling to break out of his twenty-something rut. His parents died years ago on Christmas Eve and after splitting up with his girlfriend, he’s struggling to replace his mates with another support system.
They make a pact that this night will be their final crack at getting shitfaced for the Holidays and – as an added bonus – Ethan has scored (read: stolen) tickets for the hottest party in town, a party they’ve always had designs to go to. And a party is what this film wants you to believe it is. Most of the dialogue is designed, not to make you laugh – there are far too few jokes for that – but to ensure you are having a good time. The comedy this film is aiming for isn’t traditional scripted comedy, but rather trying to capture the vibe of your friends on a night out.
The trouble with such aspirations is that the kind of humour friends share is very personal to them, making it hard to replicate on a big screen and have it translate to a mass audience. Secondly, it’s just not that funny, especially to the sober. The comedy is always on this flat and even keel. It hardly ever tries to spike up and provide a really big laugh. When it does, it usually misses, tailing off and another opportunity to rise above the merely amusing is squandered. And although I was amused throughout, I wanted to feel something a little more than that at least a few times in an hour and a half.
The characters attempt to provide something a bit more substantial with emotional depth and development, but they give us nothing we haven’t seen plenty of before. Chris is a social media whore; his status as a professional athlete having the season of his life has given him the kind of fame all other films of this nature warn against. They also telegraph the end result of this character arc, so here it feels like nothing but filler.
Isaac pulls a double shift in two of the longest running traditions in modern comedy. He not only spends the entire night freaking out and hallucinating on all manner of chemical candy, he also uses his new found clarity to decry the new child he and his wife are bringing into the world, thus confirming the fact that childbirth has taken over alimony as the comedy writers of Hollywood’s No.1 fear. Because the last 15 years of neurotic comedy haven’t made that obvious enough. His character does get the closest thing to an interesting arc, though. When he enters his wife’s church, we get a sense of what it is like to be Jewish and surrounded by the death festival that is crucifix Christianity at the tail end of December. Sadly, the themes of that scene get left behind in the church where Isaac leaves them, five minutes after he picked them up.
It’s one of several moments in the film that provide these hit and run tangents, padding it out to a sizeable length, but disorganising the plot, turning it into a confusing mess. The film features several cameos from the likes of Broad City’s Ilana Glazer as a Grinch determined to ruin Chris’s Christmas and The Daily Show’s Jason Jones as a man in a Santa costume, shamelessly defaming the good saint’s name. Both provide the film with two if it’s sparse highlights.
However The Night Before’s most high profile cameo is one that fails to provide any of the laughs or the mystery that the filmmakers are trying to imbue him with. Michael Shannon plays a mystical drug dealer who keeps cropping up throughout the night to steer our intrepid trio in the right direction. He’s doing an admirable job, but he’s doing it in the wrong movie. Shannon has no instinct for broad comedy, so shoving him in this stoner flick makes him nothing more than a weirdly unsettling presence, with a solitary shock laugh at the end.
If the film does have a saving grace it lies in its lead. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is an endlessly watchable presence with a stage trained background. His charm will get you through most of the movie and it slows down considerably when he isn’t on screen. He adds a charisma the rest of the film’s elements lack.
The Night Before is a weird hybrid of stoner comedy and voyage of discovery that can never find a way to make the latter fit with the former. It provides a shopping list of modern comic clichés, none of which give us a new or interesting angle on them. In-between those tropes we have a touching coming-of-age story that loses its impact every time Tracy Morgan’s narration reminds you that you’re watching a Christmas stoner comedy. Ultimately, The Night Before feels like it was rushed out in time to make the holiday deadline. It never makes good on its side of the bargain to provide consistent laughs, and only ever shows an ambition to be a classic Christmas film, never actually turning into one.
Dir: Jonathan Levine
Scr: Jonathan Levine, Kyle Hunter, Ariel Shaffir, Evan Goldberg
Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogan, Anthony Mackie
Prd: Evan Goldberg, Seth Rogen, James Weaver
Music: Marco Beltrami, Miles Hankins
Running Time: 101 mins
The Night Before is availiable on DVD and Blu Ray now.