For the past fifteen years, Ethan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, The Walk), Chris (Anthony Mackie, Captain America: The Winter Soldier) and Isaac (Seth Rogen, The Interview) have spent Christmas Eve together. They fantasize about attending the allegedly bonkers Nutcracker Ball, but they've never been invited, so they usually end up visiting the tree at Rockefeller Plaza, going to eat Chinese food, getting drunk and partying at a local karaoke bar.
This year, things are changing. First, they've finally managed to secure invitations to the Nutcracker Ball. Second, it looks like this might be the last year they'll be able to do this. Ethan's wife Betsy (Jillian Bell, Workaholics) is eight months pregnant, and Ethan will need to spend Christmas Eve with his kid from here on out. Chris has become a famous pro football player (he's been playing for years, but his recent steroid use has turned him into an all-star), and has just gotten too busy for this sort of thing. As for Ethan... well, Ethan doesn't really have anything going on. He recently broke up with his girlfriend (Lizzie Caplan, Masters of Sex), he can't seem to hold down a job and he's growing increasingly distressed about the notion of drifting apart from his childhood friends.
At a glance, The Night Before looks like the sort of thing Seth Rogen has made on numerous occasions: a story about men forced to confront the realities of adulthood after spending years in a state of perpetual adolescence. However, this one is less about the challenges of growing up and more about the challenges of hanging on to friendships as you grow up. It's tough to maintain friendships you developed when you were young: priorities, interests and the amount of free time you have changes, and a whole lot of friendships don't survive that process. There's some wisdom in the way the film explores that reality.
Still, such ideas certainly don't dominate the proceedings, at least not to the degree they might if this were a Judd Apatow production. For the most part, The Night Before is a wild grab bag of holiday-themed mayhem. Early in the movie, Betsy gives Isaac a “goodie box” of assorted illegal substances as a Christmas present (it's a reward for the sober dedication Isaac has demonstrated during Betsy's pregnancy). Isaac determines to sample as many different drugs as he can over the course of a single night. Naturally, the wide variety of drugs inspire a wide variety of positive and negative physical reactions. The experience of watching the film feels comparable.
This is very much an “anything goes” sort of comedy, as director/co-writer Jonathan Levine and his collaborators throw a host of goofy ideas at the wall in the hopes that some of them will stick. Over the course of the film's 101-minute running time, we're treated to loopy rhyming narration from Tracy Morgan (30 Rock), a delightfully strange supporting turn from Michael Shannon (Take Shelter), an abundance of jokes involving bodily fluids, a weed bandit (Ilana Glazer, Broad City) who worships Hans Gruber, physically abusive Santas, musical numbers, an abundance of dick pics, a large-scale set piece built around a Miley Cyrus cameo and all sorts of other R-rated stocking stuffers.
Unsurprisingly, this approach is hit-and-miss, but the film benefits from being one of those rare comedies that saves its best stuff for the third act. The hits and misses are distributed fairly evenly during the film's first half (good: everything involving Shannon's character / bad: a stupid bit involving Rogen's cocaine-induced nosebleed), but once the movie hits the Nutcracker Ball – an appropriately bonkers orgy of seasonal excess – the whole thing attains a kind of nutty transcendence. Yes, it's loud, vulgar and resolutely Not For Everyone, but c'mon: at this point, you know what you're getting into with Seth Rogen flicks.
The three leads mesh pretty well, generating a raucous chemistry that only occasionally slips into the sort of incoherent clamoring that improv-driven movies are particularly susceptible to. Rogen's sweaty, frantic performance is the loudest of the bunch, but it blends nicely with Gordon-Levitt's insecure sulkiness and Mackie's self-assured showboating. The female characters aren't given quite as much complexity (this is very much a movie about bros being bros), but both Bell and Caplan get some nice, emotionally grounded scenes late the film (the former shares a particularly strong heart-to-heart with Rogen near the film's conclusion). The film is a much sillier affair than Levine's previous collaboration with Rogen and Gordon-Levitt (the surprisingly gripping comedy/drama 50/50), but it has just enough soul and goofy energy to win your affection.
The Night Before
Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 101 minutes
Release Year: 2015