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‘The Night Before’ is a mildly amusing Christmas caper

Seth Rogen, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Anthony Mackie in "The Night Before." (Sarah Shatz/Columbia Pictures/TNS)

 (Sarah Shatz/Columbia Pictures/TNS)

Film critic and notorious grinch Mark Kermode once said that a comedy could only call itself funny if it made the viewer laugh at least six times. If we were to put “The Night Before,” the latest from actor-writer team Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, through this litmus test, it would pass within the first half hour.

Though neither particularly clever nor uproariously hilarious, “The Night Before” still manages to capture that sense of community and ritual that binds people together across cultures every holiday season, and it does so in a silly, yet affectionate fashion.

In this bro-fest of a premise, we learn that on Christmas Eve 2001, mullet-headed Ethan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) lost his parents in a terrible car wreck. His best friends, Isaac (Seth Rogen) and Chris (Anthony Mackie), create an annual tradition – every Christmas Eve, the three go out to raise a ruckus in New York City to take Ethan’s mind away from darker thoughts.

Fourteen Christmases later, Isaac is married with a baby on the way, Chris has become a famous football star with plenty of Instagram followers, and Ethan, well, at least he doesn’t have the mullet anymore. The three decide that they have become too old to do this ritual anymore, and plan to go on one last hurrah before their descent into full-on adulthood.

Their final goal this night is to attend the Nutcracker’s Ball, a secret New York City party enveloped in mystery. Unfortunately, unemployed and girlfriend-less Ethan may not be ready to move on.

If Rogen, Gordon-Levitt, and Mackie weren’t in these roles, these characters would doubtlessly be insufferable. After all, there’s only so much drunken declarations of “I love you, man” one can take in two hours. Mackie might deserve the award for Most Likeable Human in Hollywood. The guy just oozes charisma and humor.

No one from the main trio steals the show, though. That honor goes to Michael Shannon, who, as the boys’ former pot dealer, Mr. Green, is even more googly-eyed than usual. Despite his status as an actor known for serious characters – like the schizophrenic doomsday visionary in “Take Shelter” or the fundamentalist Prohibition agent in “Boardwalk Empire” – Shannon’s deadpan delivery of “You are all my children” makes his bug-eyed, stiff performance steal the scene with every appearance.

The film has an almost staggering degree of comedy pedigree, and for the most part, each comic finds a respectable time in the spotlight. Guided by Tracy Morgan’s narration, we meet Lizzy Caplan as Ethan’s befuddled ex-girlfriend, Diana, and Mindy Kaling as Diana’s short-tempered best friend, Sarah.

Nathan Fielder (whose entire role might act as the baseline for a great “Nathan For You” premise) monotones his way through the movie as Chris’ limo driver who shills for Red Bull, and Jason Jones and Jason Mantzoukas wear some Kris Kringle uniforms to drunkenly parade around New York as part of the city’s most shameful tradition: SantaCon.

Yet the best of the best comes in the form of Ilana Glazer. She plays a hilarious trash hurricane of a person named Rebecca Grinch, who steals from charity buckets and parkours into garbage cans. Glazer makes for a natural smile-inducer, and any time she appears onscreen the world feels a little brighter. (Though Abbi Jacobson, her other half from “Broad City,” is missing, which feels pretty weird.)

Less joy-inducing is the shameless product placement. In a series of increasingly jarring moments, the movie pauses itself for characters to belch out lines like “Boy, I sure do love Red Bull!” and “If only I had a Snickers on me!” while all of the actors freeze to mug at the camera.

I kept waiting for some self-deprecation that would hint to at least some semblance of irony. Alas, that moment never came. These lame, sellout vibes are solidified with a forced, unfunny pop star cameo, though if you ever wanted to witness Michael Shannon utter the words “Miley was flawless,” then, well, I guess you can cross that off your bucket list now.

Director Jonathan Levine, whose previous features include the pretty good cancer comedy “50/50” and the pretty good zombie romance “Warm Bodies,” has a real gift at juggling different tones. The loose feel of the script allows the film to slide from screwball zaniness to emotional weightiness in an organic way. We go from an orphan’s nervous breakdown to a great sequence that combines one of my favorite archetypal movie scenes (the awkward dinner conversation) with my least favorite (the psychedelic drug trip) and the results have an amusing effect.

Friend groups rarely remain stagnant. The worlds envisioned by NYC-based TV shows like “Friends” or “How I Met Your Mother” – where the same people hang out with each other for decades and never develop – rarely materialize in real life.

“The Night Before” shows how the friends we thought would stick by us forever grow and change and drift apart. Inertia gives way, and we move on to seize new opportunities. In this upcoming holiday season, it’s a message that even your crotchety grandparents could appreciate.

Nate Taskin can be reached at ntaskin@umass.edu.

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