The typical Christmas comedy usually involves a series of escalating situations of varying discomfort or disgust before our protagonist learns the reason for the season and a new appreciation for his family. People gather around the Christmas trees, the lights are bright, a carol rings in the air, and all is well. The typical Seth Rogen comedy features a bromance, drug use, and various aspects of bodily functions played for laughs. Occupying the same space in the Venn diagram of cinema is The Night Before, the new Christmas comedy from director Jonathan Levine which stars Rogen alongside Anthony Mackie and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. The resulting film is quite a hilarious drug-fueled romp with a surprising bit of heart, simultaneously embracing and rejecting the well-worn tropes of the Christmas movie.
As we’re told in a rhyming holiday fashion by Tracey Morgan, at the beginning of the aughts, Ethan (Gordon-Levitt) lost his parents around Christmas in a tragic accident. In order to take his mind off the holidays, his friends Isaac (Rogen) and Chris (Mackie) take him on the town, engaging in karaoke and alcoholic indulgence. And thus starting a new holiday tradition for the trio of friends. Towards the end of the evening, however, they’re informed of a massive party known as the Nutcracker Ball, which features loads of drugs and booze for attendees to consume. This mysterious party becomes their “white whale.” As the years have gone on, Isaac has gotten married to Betsy (Jillian Bell), who is expecting their first child, Chris has become a successful football player, and Ethan has found himself mired in a rut. The trio has agreed that this night out will be their final foray into excessive indulgence, but Ethan has found invitations to the Nutcracker Ball. For their final go-round, the trio will finally find the Nutcracker Ball, as well as settle all of their old scores.
There’s a nice comedic sensibility at play in the early going of The Night Before, but the film doesn’t really kick into high gear until Rogen’s Isaac begins consuming all sorts of drugs, which his loving wife gave to him, leading to a non-stop freak out. This performance may be Rogen’s finest in a comedy, as he spews out baffling insights with a pitch perfect face of drug-induced bewilderment. Mackie and Gordon-Levitt are fine, but it’s really Rogen who steals the show. Of course, they’re aided by a robust supporting cast, including Lizzy Caplan, Mindy Kaling, Nathan Fielder, Ilana Glazer, and a wonderful, scene stealing appearance by Michael Shannon.
The Night Before isn’t without its weak spots. There are about three or four different ending, each less effective than the last. Really, the worst part of the film is the relationship between Gordon-Levitt’s Ethan and Lizzy Caplan’s Diana. Diana has no real personality that we’re presented with, aside from the fact she likes Miley Cyrus. (Cyrus, meanwhile, has a cameo where she openly presents her lack of acting ability.) Why she ever stuck with Ethan in the first place is never fully formed, nor is it fully formed as to why she would so quickly reunite with someone who is obviously a trainwreck incapable of taking personal responsibility. The whole scenario is undoubtedly the weakest element of The Night Before.
Director Johnathan Levine films The Night Before with a glossy sheen that works wonderfully with the film’s modernized Christmas fantasy. For the most part, Levine keeps the action moving forward with few moments that could’ve been excised. The screenplay by Evan Goldberg, Kyle Hunter, Ariel Shaffir, and Levine does rely heavily on a plethora of pop culture references, but the fact that they’re mostly humorous means that pop culture isn’t a crutch for the filmmakers to lean on – *cough* Seth MacFarlane.
The Night Before is a film with a few minor faults and a whole bunch of laughs. In the simplest of terms, however, if you don’t care for the films of Seth Rogen, The Night Before isn’t going to win you over, though I would say it is a far more mature work than The Interview or This is the End. Will The Night Before take the mantle as a modern Christmas classic? Time will tell. But the film is funnier than a vast majority of Christmas themed comedies of recent memory.