Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg are on a roll at this point. Their recent run of collaborations – including Neighbors, This is the End and even The Interview – have taken the stoner “man child” vibe that marked Rogen’s breakthrough in Judd Apatow films and created interesting twists on that vibe, largely by having their characters reckon with the necessity of growing up. Their latest collaboration, The Night Before, pairs the idea with a Christmas movie that also provides more than a few twists on the standard “Christmas movie.” The result is a very packed film, but one that provides plenty of laughs and some surprising warmth.
The Night Before focuses on a trio of friends who come together each Christmas Eve. They’re first brought together in 2001, after Ethan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) loses his parents just before the holidays. Isaac (Rogen) and Chris (Anthony Mackie) show up at his house and take him out to keep him from being alone, and they’ve repeated the night every year since. Fifteen years later, though, Chris and Isaac have both reached points where their lives are pulling them into adulthood, while Ethan seems to be stuck.
Knowing that they can’t keep this annual event up forever, Chris and Isaac agree to take Ethan out one more time, and Ethan knows it’s the end of this tradition. While he’s been a professional football player for years, Chris is having far and away the best season of his career. Isaac, meanwhile, is now expecting a baby with his wife Betsy (Jillian Bell) any day, and his focus has been squarely on being a father. Ethan, meanwhile, has recently broken up with Diana (Lizzy Caplan) because he didn’t want to commit, and his mild attempts at a music career have stagnated, which Isaac and Chris worry they might have encouraged.
A pair of last-minute surprises, though, manage to raise the potential insanity of the evening. First: the trio’s 2008 evening led to the discovery of an exclusive event called the Nutcracka Ball, and getting into the party has been among their annual goals ever since. As fate would have it, Ethan finally finds a way into the Ball. Second: Betsy wants Isaac to have fun, so she gives him permission to have a wild night. Then she gives him a box with every kind of party drug he could imagine to thank him for being supportive during her pregnancy.
As you can imagine, things get crazy from there. And while the humor may not be for everyone, those who like Rogen’s work in the past will like what they get here. By making the drugs far more than just marijuana, it allows for the humor to vary. Isaac just isn’t able to control himself once he starts, and the way the different drugs (and combination of drugs) create different levels of insanity lets him get in a wide range of incidents that will have audiences howling.
It helps that, while Rogen is certainly prominent, he’s not the center of the film. That would be Gordon-Levitt, who grounds the film emotionally. While all three main characters have their own journeys to take, Ethan has the biggest arc, as he comes to terms with years of repressed emotions and fears. He’s more than capable of pulling it off, while also providing plenty of opportunities to laugh. The two don’t necessarily overshadow Mackie, but Chris is a harder character to connect with than Ethan or Isaac. Chris has to deal with using steroids and trying to get the approval of his teammates; it’s not bad, but it doesn’t seem quite as universal as repressed grief or impending parenthood.
The trio are supported by one of the funnier ensembles that I’ve seen in quite some time. Besides Bell and Caplan, Mindy Kaling shows up as a friend of Diana’s who accidentally swaps phones with Isaac at one point, leading him into a situation many women and gay men have experienced before. Ilana Glazer plays a girl who hooks up with Chris at a bar, leading to some insanity for the rest of his night. Miley Cyrus and James Franco play themselves, and both are willing to play to public perception. The funniest part of the supporting ensemble, though, is a wildly unexpected turn from Michael Shannon as Mr. Green, the trio’s old weed dealer who ends up serving as the film’s take on A Christmas Carol‘s three ghosts. It utilizes Shannon’s unique energy and puts it in a whole new light.
There’s a lot to process in this film; the film’s takes on humor adjust depending on who’s in the scene, and it also gives way to more poignant moments. It’s tricky, but effectively handled by director Jonathan Levine, who previously worked with Gordon-Levitt and Rogen on 50/50. That balance of heartwarming sentiment and outrageous raunch isn’t something a lot of films can successfully pull off, but The Night Before largely succeeds. For fans of this type of humor, The Night Before actually has a good shot at joining a list of holiday classics.