Sunday, December 6, 2015

'The Night Before' review

No matter what the critics or haters say, I will always be a fan of Seth Rogen. His brand of unique comedy has always elevated his films to new levels of raunchiness and imagination. Rogen, along with his company of actors and friends- which usually includes James Franco, Jay Baruchel, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Jonah Hill, Danny McBride, and writer/director Evan Goldberg- continually comes up with ways to experiment in new genres as a way to complement his brand of humor. He tackled the stoner genre with Pineapple Express, the frat flick with Neighbors, apocalypse and meta horror with This is the End, and ludicrous action comedy in last year's controversial The Interview. Now, Rogen and 50/50 director Jonathan Levine have taken on the Christmas movie with The Night Before, a sweet and delightfully funny R-rated comedy that takes the holiday genre in new directions. Along with co-stars Gordon-Levitt and Anthony Mackie, Levine and Rogen have constructed a Christmas flick that won't win over any new fans, but will satisfy Rogen's supporters and anybody who has clamored for a seasonal flick that features an extended drug trip scene.

On Christmas Eve in 2001, Ethan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) lost his parents to a terrible car crash. Depressed, sad, and alone on Christmas, Isaac (Seth Rogen) and Chris (Anthony Mackie) find a way to get Ethan out of his funk and start an annual tradition of camaraderie and debauchery that continues for fourteen years. Jump forward to 2015, and pretty much everybody but Ethan has moved on. Isaac is about to be a father and is an incredibly supportive husband to his wife Betsy (Jillian Bell). Chris has become an NFL star under some slightly odd circumstances. And Ethan is stuck in a series of dead-end jobs, still suffering from his recent break-up with Diana (Lizzy Caplan). Chris and Isaac are ready to be done with Ethan's Christmas traditions, but for his sake, they agree to go out, party and search for the Nutcracker Ball one last time. Armed with a box of drugs, Ethan, Isaac and Chris embark on a wild journey across New York City that will test their friendship and find the three bros attempting to cope with their change into adulthood.

In my view, The Night Before is Seth Rogen and Jonathan Levine's response to Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg's instant classic comedy The World's End. The two films are strikingly similar and both deal with many of the same themes- adulthood, growing up and coping with loss. Is The Night Before as good as The World's End? Not even close. But this thematic seriousness adds a bit of weight the latest raunchy comedy from Rogen and in some ways, The Night Before shares more DNA with 50/50 (his other Levine collaboration) than it does with, say, This is the End. However, don't get more wrong- this film is still blisteringly, constantly hysterical. Probably the most shockingly inappropriate Christmas movie ever, The Night Before successfully combines heart and crudeness for a comedy concoction that I can see myself revisiting in future years.

The trio of Rogen, Gordon-Levitt and Mackie is the glue that holds the film together, and all three fill their roles fantastically. One of my favorite actors, Gordon-Levitt is infinitely likable and does well as the emotional center of the film. He brings quite a bit of sympathy to Ethan, a character that, in the hands of a lesser actor, could be completely unlikable. If we're continuing the parallels to The World's End, Ethan is the Gary King of this film, perpetually stuck in a time that doesn't exist anymore. Ethan's arc isn't quite as honest or interesting as Gary's, but it ultimately does the job.

Mackie is a good dramatic actor, and I've always loved him as Falcon in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But he doesn't have much experience in comedies, so going into The Night Before, that was a real point of interest for me. Mackie does surprisingly well as Chris, turning him into a funny and relevant character. He isn't a natural comedian, but he has some terrific moments and the way that his character satirizes our current celebrity and social media culture is wickedly biting. And finally, Rogen is the comedic core of the trio- a drugged-out, smoked-up lunatic that spends Christmas night on a wacky and wild trip. This is one of Rogen's most physical performances, but it's spiked with a heavy dose of emotion. Most of the film's big laughs come from him and he continues to become one of Hollywood's most consistent funnymen.

The supporting cast is strong as well, with a good mix of actors that we've seen in these movies before and some that are in uncharted territory. Jillian Bell is a bit subdued as Betsy (especially in comparison to her dynamite turn in 22 Jump Street), but she works as a good complement to Rogen and I can't wait until she starts to get starring vehicles of her own. Lizzy Caplan also returns for another Rogen vehicle after playing Agent Lacy in last year's The Interview. This time around, she has quite a bit more to do and works effectively with Gordon-Levitt, playing off his dorkiness and immaturity well. Finally, we get to the cameos and oh man, there are some truly great ones. Mindy Kaling, James Franco, Miley Cyrus and Tracy Morgan all pop in for some brilliant moments, but for me, the most terrific cameo of all is Michael Shannon as Mr. Green, the mysterious and borderline mythological drug dealer that hangs around for the trio's journey. Shannon is in prime form here, doing some weird stuff and playing it all with a straight face. Give this man an Oscar pronto.

The screenplay was written by Levine, Evan Goldberg, Kyle Hunter and Ariel Shaffir, and that smorgasbord of writers comes off on the screen sometimes. Tonally inconsistent, The Night Before lacks the moving punch of 50/50 or the side-splitting hysterics of Neighbors. Instead, this film settles for being very poignant and very funny. It isn't truly great or brilliant in any way. Now, this doesn't really detract from the film all that much, but I feel like one clear, committed voice would have elevated The Night Before to a new level.

That being said, in its current state, it has some hilarious sequences and funny character moments, with everybody getting their due diligence in the cast. It isn't as visually bold as Neighbors, as conceptually radical as This is the End or as straight-up absurd as The Interview, but it maintains this level of sentimentality and comedic touch that is hard to match in a modern comedy. The Night Before is fully its own beast and I don't think that there's anything in the Rogen/Franco/Goldberg filmography that can be compared to this one. The first and second acts are solid in their own right, but the third act ramps up the insanity with the party at the Nutcracker Ball and then concludes with an emotional coda that wraps up the story nicely. Levine handles everything with a master's touch and I really do think that he's a director to watch out for. I want him to keep making movies with these guys, because they've worked out pretty well so far.

Not as unhinged as Rogen's previous comedies, The Night Before is more restrained, and as such, it ends up packing a stronger emotional punch, with more well-earned laughs and developed characters. It's far from my favorite film from this troupe, but as a Christmas movie, it works wonders. Rogen, Gordon-Levitt and Mackie are great and I still maintain that Michael Shannon needs to get some kind of recognition for his bizarre turn here. The Night Before won't be for everyone, but the way that it combines poignancy and lewdness is impressive and in the process, it creates a completely unique holiday flick. After all, how many other Christmas movies do you know that feature nude photos and cocaine use?

THE FINAL GRADE:  B+                                            (7.7/10)

Image Credits: Variety, The Guardian, Vulture, Joblo

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