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Thursday, December 22, 2016

Christmas 2016: December 20

The Night Before (2015)

It took me a while to warm up to Seth Rogen and the band of Judd Apatow approved comedians he associates with. I found “Knocked Up” to be a bit diminishing in its gender politics and “Superbad” to be somewhat obnoxious. I think “This is the End” is when Rogen and his frequent collaborator, Evan Goldberg, won me over. That film's combination of clever vulgarity, high-strung absurdity, and chemistry among the cast was highly amusing. This trend continued in “The Interview” and “Sausage Party.” “The Night Before” seemed to be Rogen and friends' take on the Christmas movie. (Though it was directed by Jonathan Levine, with Goldberg taking a producer's credit instead.) A friend nearly talked me into seeing this in the theaters last year. When I passed, I figured I'd give it a look this December instead.

When he was a teenager, around Christmas Eve, Ethan's parents died in a car accident. In order to get his mind off mourning, his best friends Isaac and Chris took him out for a wild night of partying. This began a tradition, where the trio go out for a night on the town every December 24th. However, their lives are changing. Isaac is an expectant father. Chris has become a successful sports celebrity. Ethan, meanwhile, is having trouble getting over the end of a relationship. These life events are prompting an end to the Christmas tradition, which Ethan can't accept. As the night of partying arrives, Ethan gets his friends into the exclusive Nutcracker Ball, the craziest Christmas party in New York.

“The Night Before” isn't as ridiculously over-the-top, nor as consistently hilarious, as “This is the End.” The film does, however, features some similarly big gags. Rogen's Isaac spends most of the film tripping on one form of drug or another. This leads to some especially amusing sequences. Such as when he leaves a drug-addled, profane video message to his future self, laying out his anxieties about fatherhood. Or when he looses his cool at Catholic mass, believing a talking baby to be trash-talking him. Maybe my favorite gag is comparatively quieter, when Rogen has a calm discussion with a seemingly talking Nativity. Some of the other actors get comedic gags to themselves. Anthony Mackie's Chris has an acrobatic encounter with a groupie in a bathroom. Afterwards, he realizes she has picked his pockets. The girl turns out to be a professional grinch, citing the Wet Bandits and Hans Gruber as heroes. This amusingly absurd climaxes with a chase across a rooftop.

“The Night Before” has something else in common with “This is the End.” The film is peppered with celebrity cameos. Tracy Morgan's immediately recognizable voice provides the opening narration. Miley Cyrus appears as herself, having fun goofing on her former Hannah Montana image. Rogen's frequent on-screen pal James Franco has an entertaining bit part as a guy who realizes his increasingly bisexuality over the course of the night. The best cameo is Michael Shannon as a weirdly philosophical drug dealer. Shannon's perfectly tuned deadpan makes his bizarre declarations even funnier. (He also hands over time-traveling joints, which is a nice bit.) The cameos end up  overshadowing many of the Christmas elements. Though even a few of those, like Joseph Gordon Levitt getting into a fist fight with a pair of Santas or Rogen's Jewish character being accused of crucifying the Messiah, hit home.

“The Night Before” strings its broad, potty-mouthed gags around a story about friends growing apart. Some of these moments fall flat. A tense confrontation between Ethan and Chris has both men admitting their failings, while nearly canceling the night. Despite the best efforts of Lizzy Caplan and Mindy Kaling, the romantic subplot is a bit of a snore. In a nice subversion, Ethan's big romantic gesture doesn't immediately win the girl back. However, the two still end up back together by the end. Better is the film's reflections on how friendships change over time. The climatic sequence, which reaffirms the characters' bond, is sweet while remaining funny.

“The Night Before” takes a while to find its comedic groove. The earlier scenes have trouble balancing sentiment and absurdity. Eventually, the film gives in to its vulgar tendencies, focusing primarily on creating goofball laughs. That's not a complaint, as the broad gags suit the film better then the sentimentality. It's not Christmas viewing appropriate for most family gatherings but did make me laugh pretty frequently, thanks to a sharply ridiculous script and the charms of the lead performers. [7/10]

Olive, the Other Reindeer (1999)

“Olive, the Other Reindeer” was a Christmas special that premiered on Fox in 1999, amid much hype from the network. It was produced by Matt Groaning and featured several “Simpsons” and “Futurama” cast members. Despite being based on a well-like kids book, “Olive” wouldn't become a perennial classic. For some reason, I've always remembered it and decided to give it a look this year. Olive is an enthusiastic Jack Russell Terrier who loves Christmas. Her holiday glee is threatened when Santa announces he's canceling his flight. The dog mishears “all of the other reindeer” as “Olive, the other reindeer” and assumes Santa is summoning her. She travels to the North Pole, befriending a slick penguin and confronting a mean postman, in hopes of saving Christmas.

Maybe “Olive” doesn't get yearly showing because its was animated with CGI. Though top of the line in 1999, the animation looks dated now. However, by mimicking the paper cutout illustrations of the original book, the special maintains its own likable sense of style. This matches the surprisingly witty script. The jokes are kid friendly without being mindless. Olive's frequently un-dog-like behavior is often referenced. She escapes from a tricky situation thanks to a package addressed to “Deus Ex Machina.” Olive has her own pet, a flea named Fido. The flea's bad hearing has him amusingly mangling a message from Olive's master. She befriends a penguin named Martini who is, essentially, a con artist. He sells knock-off Rolexes and pilfered stationary. The titular characters isn't the only one with a mondegreen name. Characters named Round John Bergin (as in "round yon virgin") and Richard Stands (as in "for which it stands") also appear. The former character is met in a North Pole bar occupied by hardened talking reindeer and bunny rabbits. A playful silliness characterizes much of the special.

Maybe because of Groaning's involvement, “Olive” attracted some A-list voice talent. Drew Barrymore plays Olive, bringing an airy sprightliness to the part. Barrymore's cute delivery is perfectly suited to the part.  Joe Pantoliano gets some of the best lines as Martini the Penguin. Memorable jokes include a comment about a waitress, the villain in disguise, liking him and another concerning how breaking-and-entering laws affect Santa Claus. Ed Asner is nicely crusty as Santa, one who can't be bothered to remember his various catchphrases. Dan “Homer” Castellaneta has the showiest part as the villainous Postman. Extending his Vincent Price impersonation to feature length, Castellaneta preens and hams it up to glorious levels. Keen-earred listeners will recognize Groaning regulars Billy West and Tress MacNeille among the bit parts.

Being a Christmas special, “Olive” features some original songs. Several singers are cast in supporting parts, with Michael Stipe and the Big Bad Voodoo Daddies appearing as reindeer. Both, naturally, get songs to themselves. Their numbers are good but Castellaneta's song, entitled “Bah, Bug, and Hum!,” is probably the musical highlight of the special. Barrymore's singing voice is quite limited but I still like her opening number. As I said, “Olive, the Other Reindeer” doesn't get shown much anymore. I think it's definitely worth revisiting though, as it's a funny, cute holiday special that can easily be enjoyed by both the grown-ups and the kids. [7/10]

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