A bawdy and big-hearted stocking-stuffer for the adults used to enduring all manner of kid-friendly rubbish around the holidays, The Night Before is also much, much better than the movie it’s being sold as. Yes, this is an R-rated, drug-filled, profanity-laden comedy about three friends (Seth Rogen, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Anthony Mackie) who set out to end their annual tradition of Christmas Eve debauchery on a (very) high note. And yes, it totally follows through on that premise, taking said friends on an insane adventure through the snow-dusted streets of New York City as they struggle to make their way to that most hallowed of holiday bashes: the Nutcracka Ball.
But The Night Before is also the work of writer-director Jonathan Levine (All the Boys Love Mandy Lane, The Wackness, 50/50, Warm Bodies), who has over the years proven himself remarkably proficient at taking just about any genre and cutting through all its B.S. to find a beating heart. And especially given that he’s re-teaming with Rogen and Gordon-Levitt, whose fantastic chemistry gelled with Levine’s painfully honest writing to make 50/50 one of the best bromantic comedies in years, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that The Night Before offers up plenty of yuletide cheer to counteract (if never quite cancel out) its more puerile pleasures.
The reason Levine’s film (co-written by Evan Goldberg, Kyle Hunter and Ariel Shaffir) is able to balance naughty and nice so nimbly really comes down to his three not-so-wise protagonists. Gordon-Levitt’s Ethan is the one leading the charge each year during the gang’s annual December 24th festivities, and for one sobering reason – he’s been doing so every year since high school friends Isaac (Rogen) and Chris (Mackie) started it in order to bring some light back into their buddy’s life following his parents’ deaths in a car accident. Outside of reuniting with his boys every year for one crazy night out on the town, Ethan doesn’t have a whole lot going on. He’s an aspiring singer-songwriter who hasn’t yet shown his music to anyone, let alone seen any financial gain from it, and his relationship with the lovely Diana (Lizzy Caplan) has fallen apart over his hesitation to commit to another person.
Meanwhile, Isaac and Chris don’t seem (at least at first) to have encountered any such issues with growing up. The former is expecting a baby with wife Betsy (Jillian Bell), while the latter has experienced a meteoric rise to fame after a shockingly good season on the football field. With those new obligations pulling them in different directions, it’s decided that the trio’s annual tradition of getting obliterated on Christmas Eve should come to an end. But as the friends set out for one last night (with Isaac chowing down on just about every drug known to man), they’re all a little taken aback by the ways in which the past year has impacted each of them. Isaac is masking insecurities about his inchoate family, while Chris is shouldering a fair amount of guilt about the new success he doesn’t feel he’s earned. And Ethan’s more invested in the night than either of his friends first realize.
Suddenly, even through the warm haze of drugs, drinks, ugly Christmas sweaters and wild escapades, everything feels different. These three men are caught between their young-man desires to bro out in ridiculous, heartwarming fashion and their internal knowledge that they’re really just getting too old for this shit. And so they commit to their pursuit of merry midnight madness, but do so with new doubts and uncertainties that inevitably come out into the open.
Like A Very Harold and Kumar 3-D Christmas before it, The Night Before is a Christmas fairy tale for adults, lightly decorated with some touches of magical realism (Michael Shannon has a riotous supporting role as the gang’s drug-dealing, prophecy-relaying guru Mr. Green) and ho-ho-hilarious narration. But like all the great Christmas movies, it’s about more than the holiday itself – audiences unwrapping The Night Before will also discover a warm-hearted coming-of-adulthood tale, one that feels at once truthful and rib-tickling. Levine knows how his characters hurt, and even as he mines his high-holidays setup for belly-laughs by sending the trio all over New York City in a hell-for-leather, drug-fueled frenzy, he has equally good aim when it comes to delivering moments of emotional revelation that actually resonate.
The writer-director is aided by three fantastic performances. Rogen is the loose cannon of the bunch, spending much of the movie bugging out after ingesting copious amounts of drugs, but the actor is so skilled at playing the fool (years in essentially the same role will do that) that his in-over-his-head stoner shtick never grows old. Mackie, meanwhile, is saddled with the least likable character but still excels in the part, highlighting Chris’ strengths and weaknesses while flexing some A-grade comic muscles that the actor’s more dramatic parts often shove to the side. And Gordon-Levitt is far and away the best of them all, bringing terrific energy and considerable poignancy to his man-child hero.
As a no-holds-barred raunchfest, The Night Before never reaches the absurd heights of something like Harold and Kumar, and it might feel a bit slight to audiences expecting gross-out insanity on the level of Rogen and Goldberg’s This is the End or Neighbors. It has some great punchlines, but some others that fall flat, and Levine plainly isn’t interested in swamping his movie in such over-the-top lunacy that the titular night’s vulgarity becomes its main takeaway. If friends are the family we choose for ourselves, he’s saying with The Night Before, making flesh-and-blood families of our own should never have to mean those friendships get iced over.
What’s that? A Christmas movie with a moral lesson up its knitted sleeve? You don’t say! But have no fear – The Night Before is never preachy, and its naughty streak lasts long enough that you’ll still be smirking even as Levine hoses the screen down with feel-good fizz. It may be hitting theaters well ahead of turkey carving, but there’s a mischief and magic to this holiday-centric ode to male friendship that puts you squarely in a Christmas state of mind. And though it doesn’t sport the neatest wrapping, and its excessively tidy bow sends the movie into fairly saccharine territory, The Night Before still feels like a gift, from a wonderfully empathetic filmmaker to those in the audience looking for more than superficial gags and stock characters this holiday season.
The Night Before's blend of wacked-out whimsy and warm-hearted yuletide cheer is more than enough to smooth over any narrative bumps in its R-rated sleigh ride through the pleasantly familiar lessons of Christmas movies past.