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 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.
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.
Now, in Ethan’s defense, he’s been marred by tragedy. When he 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. 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.
“The Night Before” piles on the politically incorrect humor. Much of it feels like warmed-over versions of material mined by everyone from Woody Allen to Larry David to Kevin Smith.
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.