Starring: Seth Rogen, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Anthony Mackie
Directed by: Jonathan Levine (“50/50”)
Written by: Jonathan Levine (“The Wackness”) and Kyle Hunter (debut) & Ariel Shaffir (debut) and Evan Goldberg (“Superbad”)
As Christmas rolls around every year, three buddies – Isaac (Seth Rogen) Ethan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), and Chris (Anthony Mackie) – convene to hit up different traditional Christmas things around New York City, like the Rockefeller Center tree, FAO Schwartz, et cetera. It’s a tradition they started 15 years ago to cheer up Ethan after the tragic loss of his parents to a car accident, but as they’ve grown older and acquired careers and families of their own, they mutually agree to shut the celebration down after one last drug-fueled blowout culminating in a mythical Jay Gatsby-level party known as The Nutcracka Ball.
Look, it’s not as if “The Night Before” is without laughs, but they are all centered on Rogen’s character, tripping balls throughout the night on a box of drugs given to him by his wife (Jillian Bell) as one last hurrah before their daughter is born. Gordon-Levitt’s Ethan is saddled with the maudlin story of a lonely man-child and a half-cooked relationship backstory with former long-term girlfriend Diana (Lizzy Caplan), and Anthony Mackie’s Chris – apparently a star NFL player! – spends the majority of the runtime doing things no person of his caliber of fame could or would do, like walking around NYC almost unnoticed and buying weed from a small-time drug dealer. Its Mackie’s story that draws into relief the biggest problem with the film: it just doesn’t go as far off the deep end into insanity as it should. Flashes of absurdity, like the ultimate resolution of Michael Shannon’s creepy pot merchant or the welcome, weird narration from Tracy Morgan, are nice touches that pepper a rushed, unfocused narrative.
Director Jonathan Levine, who expertly weaved comedy and drama together with Gordon-Levitt and Rogen in 2011’s excellent “50/50,” seems intent on turning in a mash-up of that film and “Pineapple Express,” and the result is about as messy and scattershot as you would expect from that description. Hilarious hallucinogenic freak outs are butted up against would-be poignant scenes of a young man dealing with his parents’ untimely death, only to be followed by another hilarious and inadvertent conversation about dick pics. But with the clashes of tone, a narrative that makes too little sense and has too few laughs to bail it out, “The Night Before” arrives under the tree as a big box of not enough of what anyone wants.