Reviewer: Philip Price
Director: Jonathan Levine
Stars: Anthony Mackie, Heléne Yorke, James Franco, Jillian Bell, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Lizzy Caplan, Lorraine Toussaint, Michael Shannon, Miley Cyrus, Mindy Kailing, Seth Rogen, Tracy Morgan
Released: December 4th, 2015
Sitting down for a Seth Rogen comedy now means one of two things in that 1) we’re either going to get a stoner comedy extravaganza with over the top comedic bits or 2) we’ll still get those things, but they will be balanced out by some type of life lesson that typically holds real dramatic weight. Which Seth Rogen movie we end up getting usually depends on who he’s collaborating with and lucky for us, with The Night Before, Rogen and Joseph Gordon-Levitt have reunited with their 50/50 director Jonathan Levine. 50/50 was one of my favorite films from 2011, but I haven’t felt the need to re-visit it as often as I’d initially imagined. While The Night Before isn’t as impactful simply by virtue of not dealing with as serious a subject as cancer it is a film I could see myself returning to more often than not, especially during the holiday season, due to the fact it’s solid, raunchy fun. While the gist of the film is just that, to be a dirty, filthy, drug-fueled and foul language-filled R-rated Christmas comedy, there is clearly something more at play here and we can sense that from the opening sequence in which Tracy Morgan narrates as if reading a classic Christmas storybook. The film is framed and presented as something of a spoof on the traditional Christmas movie where everything is softly lit as if every viewer is cuddled up next to a fireplace watching and finding solace in the thought that things will never change and traditions will hold up for decades upon decades, but that is the exact theme in which The Night Before hopes to tackle. One has to wonder how long Rogen and his writing partner Evan Goldberg (who is credited as a screenwriter here along with Levine and two other writers) were going to continue to harp on the themes of boys becoming men and growing up even if it’s something you don’t necessarily want to accept. They have more or less been harping on these ideas for ten years now as here Rogen is playing the opposite of his Knocked Up character and the movie overall is something of a Superbad eight years down the road. The catch is, it works, and it puts a kind of kibosh on the theme as each character either comes to realize these truths or is able to get over the hump of revealing them to the ones they care about most.
Ethan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) lost his parents when a drunk driver hit them right before the holiday season some fourteen years ago and every Christmas Eve since his best friends Isaac (Rogen) and Chris (Anthony Mackie) have joined him for a holiday tradition that has now seemed to have run it’s course. Naturally, Ethan is the only one who is still stunted by the loss of his parents. He allows the tragedy to navigate his life by giving him this fear change, but in the process it is also tending to ruin his life. It seems Ethan had a steady girlfriend in Diana (Lizzy Caplan), but couldn’t commit and so things fell apart. Ethan is also working as an elf at a Christmas party at the beginning of the film if that tells you anything of his career prospects. There are conversations and numerous examples of Ethan wanting to be a musician, but it seems he’s unable to commit to any one project or idea long enough to even make that a viable option-he scoffs at the idea of doing gigs because everyone’s just on their phones anyway so all that matters is the social media game (which feels insanely true at the moment unless you’re already a name). Any way you paint it, Ethan is something of a mess and while he along with Isaac and Chris have all agreed to make this their last Christmas Eve together, Isaac and Chris seem to have checked out a few years prior. Isaac is a lawyer and married to Betsy (Jillian Bell) who is pregnant with the couple’s first child. The always hilarious Bell (22 Jump Street, Goosebumps) and Rogen demonstrate a solid and genuinely charming relationship while Chris is a professional athlete who has recently found fame after having a spectacular season. Finally deciding they need to approach Ethan with the fact he’s not really moving on with his life the three friends embark on their annual night of debauchery and hilarity with the hope of making it the most memorable one of all by finally being able to attend the Holy Grail of Christmas parties- the Nutcracker Ball.
It is easy to say that the Seth Rogen bromance brand of comedy has more than run it’s course, but as long as Rogen and his contemporaries continue to grow and have new life experiences and continue to write about those experiences in funny and interesting ways I tend to think these guys could go on making comedies for a long time to come. There is always something new to learn or some new facet of life that was once undiscovered and is now fascinating at a new stage in life and to be able to parlay those experiences into one’s you share with moviegoers is a formula that may not always prove to be original, but is at least one that will attempt to offer some kind of fresh insight or perspective on whatever subject they decide to take on. This is what Rogen and his crew (and as much as I like Mackie and Gordon-Levitt I would have loved for this to have been some variation of Rogen, Jason Segel, Jay Baruchel, Jonah Hill, Martin Starr, or James Franco-though the latter does make his obligatory cameo) have come to be revered for as much as they are almost reviled for at the same time. Revered for being able to bring such weight and substance to what would otherwise be pointless stoner comedies about people who really are wasting their lives away while more lately being reviled for continually relying on jokes about pot, mushrooms and any other kind of drug you can throw in there (Cocaine? I don’t think I’ve done cocaine for like, eleven years!?!?! Yeah, no one has I don’t think) as well as the constant profanities that seem unnatural and little more than a desperate attempt to make the teenager’s chuckle despite the acknowledgement that the characters they’re playing need to grow up. And like most Rogen comedies, The Night Beforegoes a little too over the top and gets a little too strange for it’s own good, but with the steady hand of Levine (who made Warm Bodies in between this and 50/50 and really found a groove with that film) this film never strays too far from it’s intended arc and, more importantly, the character arcs that keep us invested.
The biggest problems with the film are that, despite the fact it clearly wants to pay homage while at the same time sending up movies of Christmas past, it shoehorns in too many movie-like story archetypes that are unnecessary while the character journeys are more than enough to justify our interest. The overarching goal of finding this mythical Nutcracker Ball is set-up early and is the clear objective for the narrative, but it becomes such a side hassle throughout the course of the film with our three protagonists each working through their personal struggles that it becomes more obvious the film should have simply focused on these aspects. While Mackie’s Chris gets the least meaty of the personal material to play off even stranger is his fling with a little hipster Grinch (Ilana Glazer of Broad City) that, while it amounts to him learning his necessary lesson when it comes to the difference in his real friends and his famous teammates that he’s trying to impress, doesn’t go much further. I understand the Dickens-esque allusion of it all, but I definitely feel like they could have taken this bit further. For as much as The Night Before can be baffling at points there are also plenty of things that work really well and are genuinely funny. The inclusion of a drug dealer played by Michael Shannon is both another homage to the magical tone of many a Christmas movies (as well asThe Great Gatsby) while also just proving to be consistently hilarious as Shannon keeps his standard facade of quiet but intense intact while speaking lines that consist of a ridiculous combination of words. Early on in the night, after our boys hit up a karaoke bar and perform Run DMC’s “Christmas in Hollis” (or the unofficial theme song of the film) they run into Kaplan’s Diana as well as her best friend Sarah (Mindy Kailing). This sets up both a Miley Cyrus obsession as well as a fun dynamic between Kailing and Rogen that results in a phone mix-up and a text message conversation for the ages that is pure Rogen/Goldberg humor. The film is good about setting things up and paying them off in really funny ways. The script feels symmetrical without being predictable. This all leading to the revelation that it’s hard to stay friends with people when you’re older and thus why I’m still excited to see where Rogen and Co. go from here.