Jonathan Levine’s The Night Before is both a raunchy comedy and a conventional Christmas film. It’s vulgar and frequently absurd, but it also argues thematically for the necessity of growing up. These two threads never combine together as well as they do in previous Seth Rogen films like Knocked Up and even Neighbors. It’s hard to take the film’s message about maturation seriously when its primary appeal lies in its vulgar hijinx. The focus on maturation feels forced, as if the filmmakers think they have to argue for it because this is a Christmas film after all. But still, even if the film’s themes are unconvincing, the particulars of its characters and the film’s humour makes it a worthwhile holiday entry.
The Night Before follows Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Ethan, whose parents were killed by a drunk driver on Christmas Eve in 2001, ruining the holiday for him. His best friends, Isaac (Seth Rogen) and Chris (Anthony Mackie), decided to spend the holiday with him that year and turn it into a debauched night out to make him forget the family he lost. Now, 14 years later, this night out has become a holiday tradition for Ethan, who’s barely grown since he lost his parents. Disappointed that their friend refuses to grow up, Isaac and Chris, both successful in their careers and personal lives, decide to celebrate the night with Ethan one last time in a party to end all parties, but with the agreement that they’ll confront Ethan about his arrested adolescence and help him grow as a man when the night ends.
Most of The Night Before is an excuse to showcase the particular humour of Seth Rogen and company. Jokes about drugs, sex, and Judaism, nostalgic references to the 1990s, appearances by James Franco—all of these things are to be found in The Night Before. While some viewers’ mileage with Rogen may vary, I find him one of cinema’s most dependable comedians, and appreciate his mixture of nerdish anxiety and fratboy antics, especially when his humour is kept on a tight clock, as it is here.
Early in the film, Isaac’s wife, Betsy (the very funny Jillian Bell) gifts him a box of drugs to use during the night as a thank you for his calm and support during her pregnancy. Isaac’s ingestion of these drugs make for the film’s comedic highpoints, such as when his blood from a cocaine nosebleed drips into a friend’s (Mindy Kaling) martini glass, making her think it’s a pomtini, or when he becomes obsessed with the dick pics that he keeps receiving after he accidentally swaps phones with same friend. Rogen is a funny man and he’s a generous performer, allowing others to riff on the comedic energy he injects into scenes. Anthony Mackie as the film’s third friend fits nicely into Rogen’s comedy dynamic, utilizing his ample charm and physical dexterity for a few surprising laughs. He enjoys an easy chemistry with Rogen and Gordon-Levitt, and the particularity of their characters’ history with each other is part of the film’s appeal.
Even though Ethan is the one most in need of growth, each character suffers from some early-mid-life anxiety. Isaac is having a kid, which he is secretly freaking out about, and Chris has recently become a successful NFL player, even though his success is fueled by steroids. Each friend needs the other two to surmount his problems. The bond between these characters is the movie’s heart and its most honestly-drawn component.
Sadly, as the ostensible lead, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s charms are mostly absent from The Night Before. Saddled with the film’s burdensome thematics about growing up, Gordon-Levitt has to play a watered down version of his (500) Days of Summer character, fixating on his ex-girlfriend, Diana (Lizzy Caplan), who he lost due to pure stubbornness. The way the film develops their relationship has a few surprises, namely Diana’s honest rejection of Ethan’s climactic grand romantic gesture, but later developments eventually undo this moment of honesty and the whole relationship feels trite in the end.
Luckily, the bizarre appearance of Michael Shannon as a sage-like drug dealer saves any of the film’s more reflective scenes from becoming sentimental. Shannon is utterly entrancing here, employing his typical soft-spoken intensity to generate laughs while fueling Ethan’s reevaluation of himself. His inclusion in the film is so unconventionally brilliant, it does a lot to make up for the film’s other inadequacies.
The Night Before is no Christmas classic, but it’s funny and short and occasionally has moments of inspiration that make up for its narrative defects. That it runs the familiar route of trite lesson making is not surprising—most every film from the Apatow-influenced comedy scene justifies its debauchery by making the characters grow up. Viewers fond of Seth Rogen and his brand of humour will be pleasantly amused.
6 out of 10
The Night Before (2015, USA)
Directed by Jonathan Levine; written by Jonathan Levine, Ariel Shaffir, Kyle Hunter and Evan Goldberg; starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, Anthony Mackie, Lizzy Caplan, Jillian Bell, Michael Shannon, Mindy Kaling, and Lorraine Toussaint.