Even within the context of being an absurdist stoner slapstick holiday movie, “The Night Before” is so disjointed and so uneven and so unfocused, you start to feel like you’re at a party that was wicked fun for a while — but an hour or so into it, you’re looking at your phone every 30 seconds and trying to invent an excuse to make for the exits and clear your head.
At times, it’s really funny. More often, it’s “shocking” for the sake of shock value, gross for the sake of being gross, and stupid-goofy without much of a payoff.
Here’s the deal. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is Ethan, and from what we see of Ethan in flashbacks and in the present day, he’s the human equivalent of the damp towel you accidentally grab when you’re getting out of the shower.
Think of fun and interesting and upbeat, and Ethan is the opposite of that. And he’s the one we’re supposed to care about.
Now, in Ethan’s defense, he’s been marred by tragedy. When Ethan was in his late teens, his parents were killed in a terrible accident — and apparently they were an island of a family, because that accident leaves Ethan all alone, save for his two best friends: Isaac (Seth Rogen) and Chris (Anthony Mackie), who vow to be Ethan’s family from this point forward, especially during the holidays.
Cut to a decade and a half later. Isaac is married and has scaled way back on the imbibing, as his wife Betsy (Jillian Bell) is expecting their first child. Chris has suddenly become a pro football success and a product-pitchman celebrity at the age of 34, thanks to steroids. (How Chris managed to hang around as an NFL player for all those years without being any good is one of the many, many, many, MANY illogical little plot points in “The Night Before,” and yes, I know it’s a basically a live-action cartoon of a comedy, but still.)
As for Ethan, well, he’s a mope. He makes music nobody listens to, and he’s obsessed with his ex-girlfriend Diana (Lizzy Caplan), who left him because he refused to meet her family even after two years of dating. All Ethan cares about is spending Christmas with his buddies Isaac and Chris, who don’t know how to break it to Ethan that it’s time to move on, what with the guys being in their mid-30s.
Enough about the “plot,” such as it is, of “The Night Before.” The bulk of the film is a “Hangover” style journey through the hallucinogenic rabbit hole, with Ethan, Isaac and Chris getting into all sorts of misadventures on one crazy night of self-discovery that will include references to holiday movies from “Home Alone” to “Die Hard,” celebrity cameos, aggressively sacrilegious set pieces and Michael Shannon doing a fantastic job of playing off the Michael Shannon persona, to the point where we’re not sure if Michael Shannon was in on the Michael Shannon jokes.
“The Night Before” piles on the politically incorrect humor, from Isaac disrupting a Midnight Mass in disgusting fashion to some Nativity Scene nonsense to a sight gag involving a quarterback nicknamed “The Messiah” to some angel-based humor. Much of it feels like warmed-over versions of material mined by everyone from Woody Allen to Larry David to Kevin Smith.
Mindy Kaling has exquisite comic timing, and she delivers a couple of funny moments as Isaac’s co-worker and his ex-girlfriend’s best friend — but it feels like Kaling just showed up for a couple of days and filmed her part, and nobody really cared what happened to her character after that.
Same goes for Ilana Glazer’s Rebecca Grinch (yes, Grinch), who I’m assuming was supposed to be some sort of whimsical, charming, wickedly dark muse — but is just as irritating as a pebble in your shoe, annoying and unlikable, until she disappears on a sour and unfunny note.
Seth Rogen cracks me up even in his lesser efforts, and he has some inspired moments as the increasingly paranoid and tripped-out Isaac — but it wouldn’t be the worst path in the world for Rogen to avoid drug-laced humor for, oh, the next decade or so.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Anthony Mackie have as much career goodwill as just about any actors I can think of, and they try really hard here — but they’re each playing thinly drawn characters. Lizzy Caplan is a wonderful actress, but Diana comes across as harsh and then wishy-washy.
One more weird thing about this movie. Miley Cyrus plays Miley Cyrus, and she’s actually pretty charming — but according to “The Night Before,” all these people in their mid-30s worship Miley, and “Wrecking Ball” is THE touchstone song for Diana. Didn’t that song come out, like, two years ago?
Columbia Picturespresents a film directed by Jonathan Levine and written by Levine, Evan Goldberg,Kyle Hunter and Ariel Shaffir. Running time: 101minutes. Rated R (for drug use and language throughout, some strong sexual content and graphic nudity). Opens Friday at local theaters.