Time to add another selection to the list of “watch-them-every-year” holiday movies in your collection, but only if that collection is PG-13 and up. The Night Before is exactly what it looks like in its marketing: a buddy comedy adventure a la The Hangover from the folks that brought you This is the End and Knocked Up, all dressed up in tinsel and Santa colors, waiting under the mistletoe to give you a holiday kiss of laughter. But just because it is exactly what it looks like doesn’t mean it’s not enjoyable. On the contrary, it’s among Seth Rogen’s funniest comedic offerings in years, as it does what his best films have always done: make you laugh to the point where your face and belly hurt, while at the same time examining in a light and funny way very real and relatable truths about adult life.
For the past 10 years since his parents died in a car accident, Ethan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) has spent Christmas with his two best buds, Isaac (Rogen) and Chris (Anthony Mackie), honoring a very specific set of madcap holiday traditions. But the trio now find themselves faced with the end of an era as each of their lives face big changes: Isaac and his wife Betsy (Jillian Bell, 22 Jump Street) are expecting their first child, while Chris has found success and fame as a pro football star, and so they recognize this as their ‘last hurrah’, the last time they will hit the streets of New York City on Christmas Eve and do their particular brand of Christmas crazy.
Part of that crazy has been seeking out the “Holy Grail” of NYC Christmas Parties, the legendary “Nutcracka Ball”, which every year is held in a secret location that has for the past decade eluded the intrepid trio’s every attempt to locate and crash it. But not so this time: With tickets to the party that he “happened upon” in hand, Ethan sets out with his fellow musketeers to fulfill the promise of their decade-long quest and thus make this Christmas the most memorable of them all. But what Ethan doesn’t know is that Isaac and Chris have thoughts of their own about what needs to happen that night aside from karaoke, toy store hijinks, and party crashing: an intervention of sorts for their friend, who they see as having gotten stuck at a point in the past and not able to move forward in life. Not an easy conversation to have, as they discover, especially when caught up in good times, holiday nostalgia, and all the unexpected mayhem that invariably finds them on this one night every year.
But with a little help from their high school pot dealer, Mr. Green (Michael Shannon), and run-ins with an ex-girlfriend, a scam artist, and a few celebrities, a Christmas miracle for the three friends begins to unfold, one that will help them begin a whole new Christmas tradition that will last for years to come … or result in Isaac divorced, Chris ostracized from his new bunch of football teammate buddies, and Ethan brokenhearted and beaten up by a pair of drunken Santas, among other less-than-ideal outcomes, or perhaps even all of the above.
If The Night Before establishes anything, it’s that Seth Rogen can be really, REALLY funny when he’s allowed to truly cut loose, as he is here. The freak-out Isaac experiences in the course of the evening thanks to intaking a variety of illicit substances, which director Jonathan Levine (50/50) helps audiences experience right along with Isaac through some truly inspired camera effects, easily earns the film’s biggest laughs, only a few of which are hinted in the film’s trailers. Watch for Isaac shooting a cell phone video for his future child shortly after inhaling far too much Bolivian Marching Powder, a very awkward text message and photo exchange that occurs due to his having gotten a hold of the wrong phone, and the vision of the future he glimpses after taking a toke from a very special joint provided by Mr. Green — those moments and quite a few others should very shortly be counted by fans as among Rogen’s funniest scenes on film to date.
But the drugged-out silliness is only about half of what makes The Night Before so enjoyable. There’s genuine warmth and heart here, thanks to Gordon-Levitt’s capable and credible delivery of an everyman stuck in a very familiar place in life for Millennials and many others: watching cherished friends move on with their lives in different directions, happy for them, yes, but also sad at the change and unsure of what direction, if any, their own lives might be headed in. Mackie, who has been a solid and welcome presence in a variety of films this past year, also brings depth and charisma to his work here, while also showing some serious comedic chops. The three leads together have an undeniable chemistry that powers the film through both its lighter and more serious moments, keeping you laughing while also also emotionally invested as the film progresses.
The supporting cast in The Night Before also deserves quite a bit of love, starting with Jillian Bell as Isaac’s loving, patient, and VERY understanding wife Betsy, who in her own way is responsible for sending Isaac out into the Christmas Eve night primed for debauchery. Also very funny here, although not departing too far from her sitcom persona, is “The Mindy Project“‘s Mindy Kaling, whose character bears the brunt of Isaac’s more out-of-control episodes while attempting to get her own holiday party groove on. And then there’s Michael Shannon, who after all the serious bad-guy and dramatic work he’s turned in over past few years perhaps was truly in need of working on something silly, and makes the most of the opportunity of the enigmatic and eccentric dope dealer Mr. Green. Shannon simply steals every one of the scenes he appears in by playing the intensity he’s become known for as a performer for laughs, and like almost everything else here, it just works.
So is The Night Before one of the year’s best? No, of course not. But it’s one of the best, if not THE best, comedic offerings of the season in theaters thus far, and in the years to come should prove pretty timeless as a grown-ups only holiday favorite. See it for yourself — if you’re not in the holiday spirit yet, you’ll most likely find yourself afterward a whole lot closer to it by the end, in addition to being slightly achy from laughing.
The Night Before
Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, Anthony Mackie, Lizzy Caplan, Jillian Bell, Mindy Kaling, and Michael Shannon. Directed by Jonathan Levine.
Running Time: 101 minutes
Rated R for drug use and language throughout, some strong sexual content and graphic nudity.