Seth Rogen and Joseph Gordon-Levitt re-team with their 50/50 writer-director Jonathan Levine for some drug-fueled holiday debauchery in The Night Before, a shaggy take on the tried-and-true A Christmas Carol template that injects some irreverence (and illicit substances) into a yuletide tale. And while there are sporadic chuckles to be had (mostly from a gonzo supporting turn by Michael Shannon), some uneven plotting and missed opportunities mar an otherwise warm story about the strained bonds between a trio of longtime friends and how they deal with adulthood.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as Ethan, an under-achieving 30-something who was orphaned on Christmas Eve in 2001. His good buds Isaac (Seth Rogen) and Chris (Anthony Mackie) rushed in to fill the void, creating a yearly tradition of bar-hopping and karaoke to lift Ethan out of his holiday funk. On the last year of their party tradition, the looming birth of Isaac’s first child and Chris’ rising fame as a NFL player threaten to overshadow Ethan’s arrested development, testing the friendship of these three guys.
It’s a familiar premise made even wackier by some borderline racist ugly sweaters (normal reindeer for Ethan, a Star of David for Isaac and black Santa for Chris) as well as some contemporary twists both good (hip-hop karoake!) and bad (egregious Red Bull product placement). In a nice subversion of the usual nagging wife trope, Isaac’s supportive pregnant wife Betsy (Jillian Bell) has given him a box full of every drug under the sun, ensuring the boys’ last Christmas blowout will be chemically enhanced. With tickets for the secretive Nutcracker’s Ball party in hand, they head out into a bustling New York city for a night of revelry and revelations.
The Night Before is packed with subplots that it never deeply probes, allowing them to hang over the movie before resolving them in a third-act rush. Ethan’s struggling with his inability to commit to both adulthood and his now ex-girlfriend Diana (Lizzy Caplan), mostly stemming from unresolved feelings around the loss of his parents. Isaac’s anxiety stems from his impending fatherhood, which is exacerbated by the Fear and Loathing amount of drugs he’s ingested (a wildly sweaty Seth Rogen is one of the flick’s best sight gags). Chris struggles with steroid use as he tries to get in tight with his team’s star quarterback in the most under baked plot line.
And while asking for consistency from a movie that features a certain former Hannah Montana in a huge cameo may seem like a lot, Levine proved he can marry funny and serious well in the fine cancer comedy 50/50 (which sounds like a terrible idea but was executed well). The Night Before never fully commits to over-the-top comedy or its more grounded elements, making for a movie that’s both stuffed and languid. One noted exception is the outright insanity of Michael Shannon as New York city’s resident weed dealer Mr. Green.
Shannon’s best known for always being the most intense guy on screen (in movies like Take Shelter and 99 Homes), but here he’s given a chance to flex his comedic chops as the burnout Mr. Green, a paranoid weed dealer who knew the central trio in high school. He acts as a catch-all Ghost of Christmas Past, Present and Future when the leads smoke his magical herbs and have prophetic visions. He ties together the plot and gets all the movie’s funniest lines, as well the best arc of any character with his insane final scenes. Shannon’s low key performance is a delight and proves the guy can do comedy well (check out this Nerdist podcast for more evidence).
The likeable cast generate a lot of goodwill, and the cameos (including Broad City‘s Ilana Glazer and Rogen’s eternal life partner James Franco) help to keep things lively even when the movie itself drags. As a story of a long night of partying between three friends in NYC on the cusp of big life changes, The Night Before even invites comparisons to Spike Lee’s classic 25th Hour, suffering as a result. Its message of “it’s harder to stay friends with people when you’re older, but worth the work” seems sincere, but beyond some good gags The Night Before pales in comparison to the movies it cribs from, eliciting memories of better times as it unspools.
The Night Before (2015)
Directed by Jonathan Levine
Runtime: 101 minutes