You can see what the guys behind “The Night Before” are going for in this, the second Christmas movie of the season: to see if the Seth Rogen vibe, so to speak, might work with darker, more emotional material.
It did once before with “50/50,” a comedy about cancer no less, which director/co-writer Jonathan Levine made with Rogen and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who also stars here.
The target is there and they’ve hit it before. So why does everyone keep missing so badly?
It’s almost embarrassing that it took four screenwriters to create the feeble frat-boy jokes that populate this movie. More embarrassing still that their script lacks a sturdy structure or characters with even a hint of originality.
The problem may be that Rogen can inspire laughs with a simple nose bleed — which happens here — or by vomiting in a church aisle — which also happens here — so his collaborators get lazy. Who needs to dream up great gags or situations when Rogen can just carry the ball Into the end zone by himself?
Well, not in every scene and you do have other actors too, such as Gordon-Levitt, Anthony Mackie, Lizzy Caplan, Mindy Kaling and Michael Shannon. No one is really stranded: Each has a moment or two in the laugh-light.
But “The Night Before” emerges as a random collection of motley gags, many highly forced and most only funny to those easily amused. The movie even loses track of its own issues, often sidetracked into dead ends or ends with little if any payoff.
The comedy is also forced to rely heavily on surprise cameos — Miley Cyrus here and James Franco there — then turns to sentimental slush for a finale.
The film has a dreamlike logic where the journey of three partying guys into a long Christmas Eve becomes increasingly surreal. The nearest equivalent I can think of is a fairly obscure 1985 Martin Scorsese dark comedy, “After Hours,” where a mild-mannered word processor finds himself trapped in nightmarish episodes of increasing jeopardy in downtown Manhattan.
“After Hours” did have a kind of insane logic to its coincidences and pitfalls, however. “The Night Before” simply meanders with the logic of a story conference where too much Red Bull (a product pitched hugely in this movie) has been consumed, perhaps followed by any number of the drugs ingested by Rogen’s character in the movie.
Let’s start with those drugs, in fact. The theme of this movie, as it often is in Rogen movies, is that of partying frat boys facing the realities of adulthood and its attendant responsibilities.
Rogen’s Isaac, married with a child on the way, is joined in a Christmas tradition by Mackie’s Chris, a pro footballer suddenly a star in his early 30’s, and Gordon-Levitt’s Ethan, a lost soul with little to show for his last decade other than a busted relationship.
They’ve been doing this ever since Ethan lost his parents to a drunk driver years ago just before Christmas — the first hint of darker, more emotional story lines.
Only this Christmas Eve, a decision has apparently been made that it’ll be the boys’ last night of debauchery. Time to grow up and all that. So Isaac even tells his wife he may be home early.
But what does his good natured, pregnant wife Betsy — played by comic actress Jillian Bell — do but hand her husband a bag of drugs so he’ll have a good final night out.
Really? In one moment you’ve made two characters look like idiots, Betsy for thinking this is a good idea and Isaac for agreeing with her. When he shows up, quite coincidently, at her family’s Christmas Eve mass, why is she so startled he’s stoned and having those nose bleeds?
The whole evening is a quest to attend some Nutcracka Ball, supposedly the Holy Grail of Christmas raves. A Red Bull limo and its over-caffeinated driver (Nathan Fielder) escort them around town in a rather aimless pattern since the location of this party is still unknown.
Chris runs into a female fan (Ilana Glazer), who has sex with him but steals his weed. He and the boys chase her all over Manhattan for a while until the movie loses interest in this dead-end subplot. Then everyone goes to Chris’ mom’s house, which turns out to be an ever greater waste of screen time.
Meanwhile Ethan keeps running into his ex (Caplan) and her girlfriend (Kaling) and somehow everyone’s smartphones get mixed up for predictable though lame texting gags involving photos of a male sex organ.
Caplan, who worked with Rogen on the now infamous “The Interview,” has proven to be very funny and sexy in these supporting roles so she really deserves either larger roles or her own starring vehicle. Kaling gets lost here though, not able to break out in any funny or dramatic way.
Then there’s Michael Shannon, who wanders in and out of the movie like a refugee from a crack-pot “Christmas Carol” movie. This is one joke that has a payoff but it does push the movie into the surreal.
And so it goes with characters popping up only to disappear while Rogen does a movie-long drug freak out, Gordon-Levitt mopes about his lost girlfriend and Mackie struggles to stay cool in the company of dudes who will never be cool.
Then the movie does a deep dive into “heart-felt” emotions and the Christmas spirit and the joys of family life, which is either the biggest mixed message of the holiday season or a sign these filmmakers know no sense of shame.
They should all be forced to watch “Bad Santa” to see how an R-rated Christmas movie actually gets done.
Opens: November 20, 2015 (Columbia Pictures)
Production company: A Point Grey in association with Good Universe and LStar Capital
Cast: Seth Rogen, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Anthony Mackie, Lizzy Caplan, Jillian Bell, Mindy Kaling, Michael Shannon, Ilana Glazer, Nathan Fielder, Miley Cyrus
Director: Jonathan Levine
Screenwriters: Jonathan Levine, Kyle Hunter, Ariel Shaffir, Evan Goldberg
Story by: Jonathan Levine
Producers: Evan Goldberg, Seth Rogen, James Weaver
Executive producers: Nathan Kahane, Joe Drake, Kyle Hunter, Ariel Shaffir, Barbara A. Hall, Ben Waisbren
Director of photography: Brandon Trost
Production designer: Annie Spitz
Music: Marco Beltrami, Miles Hankins
Costume designer: Melissa Toth
Editor: Zene Baker
R rating, 101 minutes