Sunday 6 December 2015

The Night Before (2015) - Movie Review… that last one didn’t go well. Maybe we need to push a little further past simple dysfunction and go head-first into insanity. After all, even more so than the grouchiness, Christmas’ simplicities have given way to quite a bit of eccentricity in retaliation. Die Hard is a quintessential holiday movie, Weird Al Yankovic’s doomsday-ready carols are being sung with gusto, and there’s even a film set to come out this year based on the Germanic Yuletide monster Krampus… that will hopefully hit cinema screens by the end of the year because, good God, I want to see a Christmas monster movie! I talked all about it a couple years back by highlighting a TV episode about a Bogan Genie Santa, in case there’s any more doubt on the issue. Anyway, for our second attempt at finding a decent Christmas movie, it’s time to revisit an old friend who nearly caused a world war (which, let’s face it, is still less ridiculous than being led by the Human Hairpiece) as we delve into another Christmas stoner flick. Yes, thanks to Harold & Kumar, this is a sub-genre that already exists.

The plot: On Christmas Eve 2001, Ethan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), Isaac (Seth Rogen) and Chris (Anthony Mackie) start a yearly tradition to be together for Christmas after the untimely death of Ethan’s parents. Fourteen years later, Isaac and Chris have moved on in their lives and want to tell Ethan that maybe it’s time to stop this tradition so that Ethan can move on with his. However, when Ethan stumbles upon tickets to the Nutcracker Ball, the most exclusive Christmas party in New York, the three decide to go out on one last night on the town.

The acting from our main three is great: Gordon-Levitt does wonders as the straight-faced yet emotional distraught centre of the group; Rogen has a lot of fun as he spends the majority of the film high on any number of illicit substances (and being kind enough to be fun to watch as well); and Mackie works as both balanced and insecure, not to mention getting a chance to throw some foot chase action into the mix. However, the bigger highlight of the film is the supporting cast, most of whom essentially act as the numerous Ghosts of Stoner’s Christmas History for this little fable. Jillian Bell’s Betsy may be na├»ve, but still has great chemistry with Rogen; Ilana Glazer as Rebecca is just insane; and Michael Shannon as Mr. Green… I don’t think there are appropriate words to describe how perfect he is in this role. I doubt anyone else could pull off Yuletide whimsy about weed strains as well as he does here. We also get some returning faces from The Interview, such as Lizzy Caplan as Ethan’s ex-girlfriend, Randall Park as Ethan’s former boss as well as James Franco who ends up stealing his entire scene thanks to his weirdly effective banter with both Rogen and Mindy Kaling’s Sarah.

This has a very weed-induced feel to approaching Christmas, in that it makes even the most mundane situations and locales look like they are imbued with the spirit of Saint Nick himself. It follows the unspoken golden rule of stoner comedy: Write events that already feel surreal without needing to be stoned. Between Rebecca re-enacting traditions from Christmas film villains, Isaac’s numerous drug trips and Mr. Green’s entire existence, this never ceases to be weird. Fortunately, this all feels intentional and fits in with how the film is presented. Between the extremely bright and harsh lighting that accompanies a lot of the ‘important’ moments and Marco Beltrami and Miles Hankins’ tinkly score, there’s a lot of intentional cheesiness but also some earnest sentimentality.

While we have a fair amount of sly nudges towards the more quintessential Christmas films like Home Alone and Die Hard, the writing definitely knows how to create a proper seasonal sentiment all on its own. However, even though the story arcs for our three main characters are all well-developed, only one of them really feels fitting in with Christmas. And even then, it only gains relevancy because of an event tied in with the holiday, not so much the holiday itself. Isaac has to come to grips with becoming a father (yes, again), Chris has to handle the pressures of his sporting career and how he ultimately isn’t getting any real respect through it, and Ethan has to get over the break-up with Diana. That said, their combined story represents exactly what this time of year should represent: People from all walks of life, regardless of religion, coming together to show their sense of good cheer and appreciation for their fellow man. It’s kind of shocking, even with how sacrilarious it can get especially when it comes to Isaac’s Jewish heritage, how right this film feels when it comes to being a Christmas movie.

There’s a certain pattern that runs through the films made by Point Grey Pictures, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s production company. It is a rather strange thread that connects their films, regardless of directors, writers or composers; they all have some moment of sheer genius when it comes to how they use their soundtrack. From Bad Neighours’ perfect use of Fergie’s London Bridge to The Interview’s eternally appreciated (if unauthorised) use of Tasha Reid’s Pay Day, it’s something I’m quickly growing to congratulate whenever it crops up. Here, we actually get repeat examples of this at work. There’s the leitmotif of Run-DMC’s Christmas In Hollis which serves as a decent comparative piece of how much our mains grow over the titular night. We also have the scene from the trailer where Rogen and Gordon-Levitt play Kanye West’s Runaway on a giant piano, Tom Hanks in Big style, which also has some thematic weight to it given how fitting the lyrics are.

But by far the biggest accomplishment, and probably the best that I’ve seen from a Point Grey production, is through their use of Miley Cyrus’ Wrecking Ball. I’m probably not alone in this but I cannot stand that song. It is the kind of song where my instinctive hatred is so potent that, as soon as I hear that chorus, I immediately have to launch into a rendition of “Good God, this song, it breaks my balls; makes me want to bash my head against the wall” in an admittedly vain attempt to keep my sanity in check. However, this film probably features the only time that that song has worked on any kind of emotional level that doesn’t involve the destruction of speaker systems. Nothing short of a genuine Christmas miracle could make that happen.

All in all, for as blunted and awkward as it gets, Seth Rogen’s infectious brand of comedy ends up delivering a genuinely warm and entertaining Christmas flick. The acting is on-point, particularly when it comes to the supporting cast, the writing balances stoner cringe with yuletide cheer, the music is Point Grey-brand perfection in terms of use and the production values work as a loving send-up to the cheesier holiday fare out there without seeming too spiteful. After the let-down earlier in the year with The Interview, it’s good to see that Rogen and Goldberg can still deliver with the right material.

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