By Chaz Lipp
As a raunchy, anything-goes comedy, The Night Before hits the mark. As a bit of Christmastime counter-programming, it hits even more squarely. Anyone looking for a holiday-oriented film that both honors and skewers the “Christmas spirit” simultaneously should definitely catch it. Though viewers with more conservative tastes might recoil in horror at its onslaught of sex, drugs, and boundless profanity, more open-minded movie fans will likely make this a required December viewing tradition.
First off, Columbia Pictures grossly mis-sold The Night Before as an all-out stoner comedy, a la Harold and Kumar, etc. You might ask, ‘What else would we expect from a Seth Rogen comedy?’ Since Rogen is almost synonymous with weed, I guess it’s not an unreasonable assumption. Luckily, despite the trailer’s nonstop emphasis on intoxication, there’s considerably more going on here. What is likely to win over even skeptics is the realistically heartfelt bond between these three friends: Isaac (Rogen), Ethan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), and Chris (Anthony Mackie). These guys have been partying on Christmas Eve for years, but as adult responsibilities have taken hold they find their tradition coming to a close. Isaac and his wife (Jillian Bell) are about to have a baby, while Chris has emerged as an NFL star (albeit mostly due to his reliance on anabolic steroids). Only Ethan, working as a coat-checker, seems untethered.
But it’s Ethan who finds (i.e. steals) three tickets to a super-secret party, The Nutcracker Ball, that the trio has long been aware of but never able to attend. Getting to this party isn’t exactly easy (it’s so exclusive, there’s a series of phone calls required to determine its location); the quest provides a general narrative thrust. It’s basically the clothesline on which a bunch of wild comic set pieces hang. The drug humor is mostly tied to Isaac and the box of illicit substances his wife has gifted him in honor of his final non-family-oriented Christmas Even blowout. But there’s also Mr. Green (a perfectly laconic Michael Shannon), a mysterious weed dealer who introduces a supernatural element to the film that honestly doesn’t quite work.
Mackie, Gordon-Levitt, and Rogen have natural, unforced chemistry that makes the quietest moments in The Night Before some of its most effective. Ethan seeks support as he tries to reunite with an ex (Lizzy Caplan, nicely understated). Will Chris come clean about his doping, especially under pressure from his buddies about why his game has drastically improved so much? It’s a subplot that turns a bit mawkish, despite the best efforts by Lorraine Toussaint as Chris’ doting mom. Ilana Glazer has some night moments as a mercurial weed thief who pulls the wool over Chris’ eyes (though her character, Rebecca, dips into the same half-baked “supernatural” concept that runs throughout). A few celebrity cameos provide big laughs (best left as surprises). The Night Before is funnier when it’s focused more on character and less on forced physical gags (like a sleigh dragging Isaac around the city streets; luckily such antics are fairly minimal). Not for all tastes, to be sure, but fans of The Interview and This is the End are likely to be pleased.
The Night Before Images: Sony Pictures Entertainment