One Last Christmas Eve Blow-Out In THE NIGHT BEFORE

Now playing at a multiplex near you:

THE NIGHT BEFORE (Dir. Jonathan Levine, 2015)

Sure, the premise of this Seth Rogen joint is pretty flimsy – i.e. three friends have one last Christmas Eve blow-out and farcical hilarity ensues – but after giving the silly stoner spin to such subjects as the apocalypse, cancer, and Kim Jong-un, I’m cool with that, as long as they keep the laughs coming.

And that they do, right from the get-go with a very welcome voice-over appearance by Tracy Morgan reciting rhyming lines in the familiar style of the classic Clement Clarke Moore poem from which the film derives its title. This gives us the set-up that back in 2001, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character Ethan lost his parents in an automobile accident, and in an effort to cheer him up, his friends Isaac (Rogen) and Chris (Anthony Mackie) initiate a hard partying holiday tradition that later comes to include an ongoing quest through the streets of New York City to find the elusive, mysterious Nutcracka Ball, considered “the Holy Grail of Christmas parties.”

In the present day, Isaac is a successful lawyer whose wife (Jillian Bell) is about to give birth to their first child, Chris is a pro football player who’s just started to get a taste of stardom, and Ethan is stuck in a rut as a struggling musician who has to take work that involves dressing as an elf and serving hors d’ourves at a corporate party on Christmas Eve.

The job is humiliating but things look up when while working coat-check Ethan happens upon 3 tickets to the Nutcracka Ball. Ethan gleefully steals them, quits his job, and runs off to find his friends. Meanwhile, in one of the movie’s most implausible moments (of which there are many), Isaac’s wife Betsy gifts him a neatly packaged box of hallucinogenic drugs and encourages him to go wild at his get-together. Yeah, sure.

So the fellows don tacky Cosby-style Christmas sweaters (Ethan’s has a standard line of red reindeer, while Isaac’s has a Star of David and Chris’s a black Santa – see above) and hit a karaoke bar, where they perform Run-DMC’s “Christmas in Hollis,” and run into Ethan’s ex Diana (I forgot to mention that the guy is still reeling from a break-up) played by Lizzy Caplan.

Caplan, who, as a veteran of Party Down, THE INTERVIEW, HOT TUB TIME MACHINE, and going way back with these guys to the Freaks and Geeks days, is well acquainted with such sausage party shenanigans, is accompanied by Mindy Kaling (The Office U.S., The Mindy Project), who gets her phone mixed up with Isaac.

This leads to Isaac, who’s gone goofy by consuming most of the drugs in his gift box, getting dick pic texts and not knowing how to respond.

In true Seinfeldian-fashion, each character has their obsessive hang-up – Isaac’s is that he’s too fucked up to function, Chris is wanting to score weed for his team’s quarterback that he’s trying to impress (this is one of the film’s clunkiest scenerios, which involves Mackie chasing Broad City’s Ilana Glazer as an evil drug stealing freak), and Ethan’s is, of course, wanting to get back together with Diana.

And in a wonderfully unexpected appearance, a hilariously deadpan Michael Shannon shows up as the guy’s high-school pot dealer, Mr. Green. This marks the second time that Shannon has stolen a movie away from Gordon-Levitt (see: PREMIUM RUSH). Shannon kills it here – every line is a stone cold gem – so much so that he ought to have his own comedy vehicle some day.

The only thing that matters in a movie like this is if it’s funny, and THE NIGHT BEFORE has some of the funniest moments of any comedy I’ve seen this year, and it has a warm, fuzzy heart that conveys way more genuine Christmas spirit than, say, crap like the dysfunctional family comedy LOVE THE COOPERS (currently #3 at the box office).

The joyous energy that Rogen and gang, including screenwriters Jonathan Levine, Kyle Hunter, Ariel Shaffir, and longtime collaborator Evan Goldberg, bring to this round of crude gags, dick jokes, drug jokes, wacky mishaps, pop culture riffs, and surprise cameos, is crazy infectious.

THE NIGHT BEFORE is way better than THE INTERIEW, but a notch below THIS IS THE END on the scale of output of from the Apatow alma mater. It may have lazy plotting, some overly obvious set-ups, and much silliness just for silliness’ sake, but it brings so much in the way of laughter, likability, and an undoubtedly sincere theme of friendship, that it more than makes up for those faults.

It did make me wonder how much longer the 33-year old Rogen can make these man-child has to face growing up movies. He’ll probably yet again take a cue from Apatow, and do ‘em til the big 4-0. As long as he keeps bringing the funny, that’s fine by me.

More later…

JGL’s Breathtaking High Wire Walk Between The WTC Towers In THE WALK

Now playing at an IMAX theater near you:

THE WALK (Dir. Robert Zemeckis, 2015)

While watching James Marsh’s excellent Oscar-winning documentary MAN ON WIRE back in 2008, I thought many times that the story of Frenchman Philippe Petit’s high-wire walk between the twin towers of the World Trade Center in 1974 could really make for a great dramatized movie.

Obviously I wasn’t alone in that thinking because now we’ve got Robert Zemeckis’ supersized recreation of the event, releasing today only in IMAX theaters (it will enter wide release on October 9), starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Petit, and featuring some of the most exquisite and breathtaking visual effects ever rendered on the big screen.

It starts with an extreme, ginormous close-up of Gordon-Levitt telling us his story from the top of the Statue of Liberty with an immaculate view of the Manhattan skyline of the ‘70s behind him. Gordon-Levitt’s French accent may be just barely passable, but his boundless energy and charm make him a great Petit (he was also trained to walk on wire by Petit himself, so there’s that). 

And check out JGL’s mad miming and acrobatic skills in the early Paris scenes, in which Zemeckis mimics jaunty new wave French films in bits in black and white, and shots in the grainy color textures of that era.

Petit’s life is one of obsessions. First, he’s obsessed with learning how to tightrope walk, under the tutelage of a circus ringleader/father figure named Papa Rudy (Sir Ben Kingsley doing his Yoda thing); then he’s obsessed with finding the perfect place to perform his wire-walking act (the towers of Notre Dame cathedral is one early effort), and finally he’s obsessed with pulling off what he calls “the artistic coup of the 20th century.”

That is, of course, to illegally infiltrate the World Trade Center, which was still under construction, string a 450-pound steel cable between the towers, and conduct a high-wire walk for the whole world.

To pull it off, Petit recruits a rag tag crew of accomplices for the coup. First, there’s the lovely Annie (Charlotte Le Bon), who he has a meet-cute with in the streets of Paris – she’s busking Leonard Cohen songs while he upstages and steals her audience with his shenigans on the same block. Then there’s Clément Sibony as a dapper photographer, César Domboy as a math teacher, who is afraid of heights; James Badge Dale as a savvy electronics salesman, Ben Schwartz (Jean-Ralphio from Parks and Recreation!) as a New York recruit, and Steve Valentine as Petit’s inside man at the Trade Center as he has an office on the 82nd floor. 

The pacing really picks up as Petit’s meticulous plotting, 6 years in the making, gets put into action, helped along by longtime Zemeckis collaborator Alan Silvestri’s score which takes its jazzy queue from such ‘70s crime capers as THE TAKING OF PELHAM 1,2,3 for the heist-like sequences.

The first half is fine, but as you’d expect it’s the second half involving the staging of the stunt itself that really – forgive me, but it’s right there – reaches incredible heights.

Every shot pops, with not a single moment that’s unconvincing, of Petit’s walk across the air 110 stories above street level, as crowds gather to watch, and policemen pop up on both towers waiting to arrest the performing perpetrator.

Look for cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, and visual effects supervisor Kevin Baillie to get many accolades this upcoming awards season – what these guys did here, helped by an army of digital technicians, of course, is beyond stellar. It’s also one of the few 3D films in which the format feels the most necessary.

Now, I have a bit of a fear of heights, so I strongly felt the sensation of being on the edge of my seat – I don’t care how much of a cliché that is – throughout the sky high scenes that form the climax. At the same time, I felt the regret that I had never been to the top of the towers when I had the chance (in 1995, I was visiting my brother in New York and came close to going up, but the lines were too long for us. Sigh).

Like many of Zemeckis’s films, THE WALK is several movies at once: it’s a heist thriller, it’s a high-scaling adventure, it’s a comedy, and it’s a love story – though, one that’s about being in love with a dream. All of these genres collide together into a pure piece of pop entertainment that’s one of the director’s and the year’s best films.

More later…