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Movie Review: 'The Night Before'

The Christmas raunchfest The Night Before is both ridiculously hilarious in parts and excruciatingly boring in others.

Review by Matt Cummings

The holiday movie season is like having your parents over: they're fun until they're not, with interest quickly dwindling with every breath drawn. It's hard to understand why the formula is so misused: take the best elements of The Hangover, mix it with the zaniness of Christmas Vacation, with a little buddy/broad raunch from Neighbors, and you should get something really magical. The Night Before is not quite that movie: a stoner flick with lots of premise, some genuinely wild hilarity, but painfully absent for large sections.

Every Christmas Eve since 2001, best friends Chris (Anthony Mackie) and Isaac (Seth Rogan) venture out into NYC to honor a long-standing agreement with their friend Ethan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) whose parents tragically died during the holidays. But Chris and Isaac are ready to move on, with one a successful NFL athlete, the other a high-powered lawyer. Unfortunatley, Ethan's life is going the opposite direction, as he's still reeling from his recent breakup with Diana (Lizzy Caplan). But when the perfect party invite drops into Ethan's hands, the boys make one more go of it - to access the Nutcracka Ball – before they go their separate ways.

Let's be honest: Anyone who's looking for cinematic brilliance behind The Night Before is both a fool and in for a rude awakening. This is all about the experience, the drug-filled journey to the finish line instead of basking in its glory once you've arrived. And for several trippy scenes, Night excels, led by Rogan. His drug-fueled rambling about his worries over being a father are the best of the film, although some women might be taken aback (ok, a lot of your will be upset). However, if you've paid to see Night, you already know the risks. There's great Run-DMC references, led by the trio rapping at local karaoke bars, and Shannon as the drug dealer is pretty great. It proves his performances aren't limited to serious roles.

But with every one of these homeruns, it's clear that Writers Jonathan Levine and Kyle Hunter were bigger on giving lots of gifts instead of a few quality ones. There's so much unnecessary fluff added (Chris' desire to be accepted by his team, the death of Ethan's parents) that the rest of the production suffers. Night descends into a super-serious buzz kill, led by both Chris and Ethan as they struggle with personal realizations in attempt to rescue their personal and professional lives. Had Chris simply been a star athlete out with his friends, the comedy could have been hilarious and one that would have played so well into the NFL's over-reaching substance abuse and personal behavior rules. For all the great meaning behind his friends gathering each year, Ethan's story is strangely odd. When he sees two Santas peeing at a street corner, he takes strong offense to it, but we never learn why. Levine never shows us why he and Diana were good in the first place, which further deteriorates our support of his trying to win her back.

What should have been the best comedy of the year turns into 10-15 minute stretches of the most painful strike outs, as our cast bumbles their way through what feels like a mostly ad-libbed affair. In fact, I kept imagining better versions of many scenes I was watching, as if not a lot of thought had been placed in their execution. I get the idea of a riffed-on moment, but when I find myself laughing more at my ideas than what I see paid professionals doing, it definitely takes away from the experience. There's also some serious production errors by the Director Levine and Cinematographer Brandon Trost. We get a baffling amount of lens flare, scenes out of focus, and colors all over the place. Granted, the theater I attended is frankly one of the worst in the region, but things literally looked thrown together in parts and with clear evidence of re-shoots.

Levitt and Mackie just don't work here when Rogan isn't in scene; not only do they fail to inhabit their characters with anything more than paper-thin backgrounds, they're just not the right fits for them. It comes up each time the three disband, almost as if Levitt and Mackie are holding back, more worried about their future success than just being great, lovable characters. Chris and Isaac's worry about their last night with Ethan is never fully realized; from the beginning, everyone knows it's the last time the three will be able to party like this, and thus any emotional impact behind that is lost. It's just a final night together, trying to get into a party that looks like every warehouse rager. There's nothing amazing or even interesting about what happens when they get there. I really felt gypped about it, but it's clear that no one throws parties like I do.

What keeps this story on track is Shannon. Mr. Green is perhaps one of the funniest characters of 2015, and the unlikely choice of Shannon keeps this thing from giving us a bad trip. He's one of the few actors who can communicate everything with just his eyes, his quiet but powerful presence jerking us into his twisted version of reality. I'd love to see him do more comedy. Caplan on the other hand is serviceable as insert-girlfriend-role-here, but we never get to know her or cohort Mindy Kailing. And what would a Rogan film be without the obligatory cameo. I'll keep the identity a Christmas secret, but let's hope the selfies in The Night Before aren't really of him.

The Night Before is clearly nothing more than The Hangover imagined as a Christmas special. It's got several funny scenes and the journey to the party is really the best part. But it lags too often, becomes super-serious for a long stretch, and looks like a college film hack job. It's a fun film when it eventually arrives on Netflix, but save your money for better stuff.

The Night Before is rated R for drug use and language throughout, some strong sexual content and graphic nudity and has a runtime of 101 minutes.

Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Matt Cummings at @mfc90125.

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