REVIEW: The Night Before

22 12 2015

If anyone is skeptical that our culture may be reaching a saturation of Christmas narratives, Jonathan Levine’s “The Night Before” ought to dispel that last shred of doubt. The film, co-written with Seth Rogen’s creative partners Evan Goldberg, Ariel Shaffir and Kyle Hunter, is a loving ode to just how much Americans love their holiday movies. The film pays homage to everything from “Home Alone” to “Elf” and even “Die Hard” during a crazy Christmas Eve shared by three old friends.

The Christmas movie appreciation leaks into the very fabric of the script, a half-baked attempt at making a stoner version of Dickens’ classic “A Christmas Carol.” (And with a bit of “It’s A Wonderful Life” as a cherry on top, to boot.) Only, instead of following one character, “The Night Before” splinters into three separate narratives bundled together.

The film follows Seth Rogen’s soon-to-be new father Isaac, Anthony Mackie’s recently famed pro quarterback Chris and Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s hapless musician Ethan on what could be their last Yuletide celebration … and not just because each is lucky to survive the shenanigans. Each guy gets their hilarious moments with a very game supporting cast, especially Isaac’s unnaturally supportive expectant wife Betsy (Jillian Bell), streetwise bandit Rebecca (Ilana Glazer), Ethan’s straight-shooting ex Diana (Lizzy Caplan) as well as Sarah, a character so Mindy Kaling-esque she had to be played by Mindy Kaling.

The film plays to the strengths of its ensemble so well that it becomes hard to spite the movie providing little more than the good time such a cast portends. “The Night Before” does not add up to more than the sum of its parts, mostly because the fragmented narrative never quite coheres by the end. It’s good for a laugh, but those hoping for a new adult holiday classic to play after the kids go to bed should probably just go for a repeat viewing of “Bad Santa.” B2halfstars

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REVIEW: 50/50

29 09 2011

The cinema of cancer is a curious thing.  The disease is usually a tack-on to the end of a movie, merely a plot device meant to make the audience appreciate the fragility and fleeting nature of life.  When the film is centered around it, the pathos is meant to unlock our most tucked-away, maudlin sentiments.

Cancer is less of a medical condition on screen than it is a transformative experience.  The victim is less of a human and more of a fighter or soldier, the underdog forced to do battle for their life.  Having known people who have been struck with this horrible disease – some emerging victorious, others not so fortunate – I can attest that they must indeed lace up their boxing gloves and pugnaciously duke it out.  But there’s more to the struggle than chemotherapy and radiation; there’s a desire for a Warren Harding-style return to normalcy as people insist on treating the patient as a different person living in a different world.

This is precisely where “50/50,” Jonathan Levine’s sophomore feature, excels.  Rather than hitting us with a tsunami of sadness, it takes us through all the emotions of living with and through cancer.  From Will Reiser’s moving script comes a story “inspired” (as the lawyers required it be advertised), by real experiences that is rooted in a startlingly authentic humanity.  His protagonist, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Adam, is never defined by his unpronounceable cancer; he is defined by his responses to a landscape that shifts much faster than he has anticipated.

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