The raunchy, dopey holiday farce “The Night Before” hits you “like a wrecking a ball,” to steal a lyric from one of its better cameos.
A “Pineapple Express” flavored romp through substance abuse and the sacrireligous, it hoots off the screen, from its rhymed Tracy Morgan-narrated “Night Before Christmas” knockoff narration to its tour of New York city landmarks, bars, Catholic churches, karaoke clubs and one epic Christmas Eve party.
And if it runs out of gas and turns all sentimental-as-if-by-formula in the third act, that’s only because the screenwriting team of Levine, Goldberg, Shaffir and a goyim run completely out of Christmas cliches they can run up the Christmas tree and mock.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt is Ethan, whose high school pals Isaac (Seth Rogen) and Chris (Anthony Mackie) have been true blue, keeping him company for each of the fourteen Christmases since his parents died in a car wreck.
But that’s coming to an end. Isaac’s become a lawyer, and is about to be a dad (Jillian Bell is Betsy, his pregnant wife). Chris is a late-blooming NFL star, marketing himself to death on social media, clinging to a career with steroids.
And Ethan is just a failed musician, the guy who let Ms. Right (Lizzy Kaplan) get away, in his 30s and still doing odd gigs like dressing as an elf waiter for holiday parties.
But that’s where he finds the magic tickets. It’s a super secret, super-hip and super-swank party called “The Nutcracker’s Ball.” And now, finally, on their last night together as a Christmas Eve trio, the boys can get in.
They start at Rockefeller Plaza, do the “Big” piano dance at F.A.O. Schwartz, hit the karaoke and…detour. Chris, squiring them around in a Red Bull promotional Hummer limo, needs to score some weed for this quarterback they’re trying to impress.
And that’s when we first meet Mr. Green. Michael Shannon could very well pull an Oscar nomination out of his ruthless mortgage broker turn in “99 Homes.” His stoned, smoke-shrouded philosopher-dealer Mr. Green could seal the deal.
He was their high school hook-up, and he’s nostalgic when he sees the lads again.
“You’re all my children.”
It’s a comic marvel of precision, wit, warmth and menace. Shannon just kills it, and he steals the movie, turning up time and again, each visit more hilarious than the last.
Swiping a picture with Rogen playing a dad-to-be on one last coke/pot/pills/’shrooms bender takes some doing. The cameos (Miley C., James Franco) are fall-on-the-floor riffs on their public personas.
Mindy Kaling turns up, and Randall Park (the dopey dictator of North Korea in “The Interview”).
The situations — a cell phone mix up, sexting included, hallucinations, a brawl with street Santas — are nothing special. And the story arc, how everybody needs to grow up, is tedious.
But the players are game and flat out bring it. Rogen has the Zach Galifianakis role in this “Hangover,” Gordon-Levitt gives his thinly-drawn character some heart and sings, with gusto. And Mackie, in his third film in two weeks (“Shelter,””Love the Coopers”), has never been funnier — riffing and ripping videos for Youtube uploads, posing for every selfie with every fan who comes along, dancing, singing a little Run-DMC.
It’s not “The Interview,” but there’s daring in sending a Jew into Christmas Mass, and having him throw up (in a Star of David sweater) and yell “We didn’t kill Jesus!” It’s not “Pineapple Express” or “This the the End,” because, well, hell, where’s Danny McBride?
But if the spirit of the season is making you sick to your stomach, “The Night Before”, scruffy and uneven as it is, might be the perfect purge.
MPAA Rating: R for drug use and language throughout, some strong sexual content and graphic nudity
Cast: Joseph Gordon Levitt, Lizzy Kaplan, Seth Rogen, Anthony Mackie, Jillian Bell, Mindy Kaling
Credits: Directed by Jonathan Levine, script by Jonathan Levine, Kyle Hunter, Ariel Shaffir, Evan Goldberg. A Sony release.
Running time: 1:41