You have to wonder whether Christmas, wonderful though it may be, hasn’t proven the bane of moviemakers. Sure, there have been some marvelous pictures centered on the holiday, but especially in recent years, the duds have far outweighed the successes. This season alone we’ve already endured the crushing banality of “Love the Coopers.” Now we’re subjected to the arrested-development take represented by the Seth Rogen school of humor, or what passes for it.
Actually, though “The Night Before” is being advertised as a comedy, in fact it’s rarely funny. Drademy might be a more accurate description, since it’s the work of writer-director Jonathan Levine, with whom Rogen previously worked—on a much higher level, it should be noted—in “50/50” (which also starred Joseph Gordon-Levitt, also on hand here, along with Anthony Mackie). But the dramatic component is awfully weak as well, coming across as more cloying than affecting. The result is a mishmash that almost never earns a laugh or even a smile, but isn’t particularly touching or insightful either.
The premise is that for fifteen years high-school buddies Ethan (Gordon-Levitt), Isaac (Rogen) and Chris (Mackie) have spent Christmas Eve together, a tradition that began after the death of Ethan’s parents in a car crash, which devastated him emotionally. Every twelve months they go through the same routine—visiting the tree at Rockefeller Center, playing the FAO Schwartz keyboard like Tom Hanks in “Big,” going to a karaoke bar. The one thing they’ve never been able to manage is to score tickets to a notoriously secretive bash called the Nutcracka Ball.
This year, however, will be different—the last such excursion. Isaac is now married, and his wife Betsy (Jillian Bell) is expecting; and though she gives him a box of varied drugs to indulge in as a last hurrah, his family responsibilities will henceforth take precedence. Chris, moreover, has hit it big in the NFL—suspiciously late in his career at 34, of course, but bringing with the on-field success lots of commercial demands. And while Ethan is still struggling in a succession of low-paying jobs, he hits the jackpot in his gig as a coat-checking elf at an office Christmas party when he lifts three Nutcracka invitations from a guest’s topcoat.
Of course, matters quickly spiral out of hand. Rogen recklessly indulges in his wife’s gift and before long has abandoned his straitlaced persona and become a gibbering goofball; he also accidentally exchanges phones with one of Betsy’s co-worker (Mindy Kaling), which causes lots of problems and a mad search to get his back. Chris is more interested in kowtowing to his team’s quarterback by scoring weed for him than in spending time with his old buddies. And Ethan is desperate at the thought of losing the friends he’s depended on for so long, especially since he appears to have doomed his own chance at happiness by breaking up with his girlfriend Diana (Lizzy Caplan) over his refusal to commit.
These three parallel story threads yield surprisingly little in terms of either comedy or drama. Rogen’s drug shtick is frankly unpleasant, especially in a misbegotten scene in which he joins Betsy and her family for midnight mass and disrupts the service, and another in which he encounters Kaling and inevitable gate-crasher James Franco at the Nutcracka Ball, which is the culmination of a tasteless gag surrounding those switched phones. By comparison Mackie and Gordon-Levitt are underused. Ethan’s pining over Diana, which takes center stage toward the close, is mawkish, and neither a visit with Chris’ mother (Lorraine Toussaint) nor his run-ins with a self-styled Grinch (Ilana Glazer) who keeps stealing his pot comes off terribly well.
In fact, neither the antic of the three stars nor the bits by lots of “guests”—Franco, Kaling, Glazer, Jason Jones, Miley Cyrus, Jason Mantzoukas, Nathan Fielder and Tracy Morgan (who as narrator recites some truly awful doggerel to set the stage) amount to much. But there is one saving grace to “The Night Before”—the periodic appearances of Michael Shannon as a drug dealer who might have swung in from “Wings of Desire.” His deadpan delivery serves not only as a useful corrective to the unfunny mayhem around him, but proves that smiles can be won, in a movie where most of the actors are trying to get laughs like extracting teeth, by the most economical means.
The technical aspects of “The Night Before” are all competent, but the movie itself is the cinematic equivalent of the proverbial lump of coal in a Christmas stocking.