'The Night Before'
The Seth Rogen movie machine has become so well-oiled that, at this point, all the guy really needs to do is pick a genre or concept and slip it into his formula. It only makes sense that he’d eventually make a Christmas movie. After all, that genre comes with the built-in warm ‘n fuzzies that he loves, as well as an opportunity to be gently offensive in the face of holiday cheer.
So now with have ‘The Night Before’ and it’s pretty much exactly what you’d expect: a bunch of buddies hangin’ out, doin’ drugs, bein’ outrageous, and eventually admitting that they love each other without actually saying those words. Toss in some Christmas carols and wait for those annual residuals to come in. Thankfully, Rogen and his team are quite good at what they do, and the naked commercialism of the project is nowhere near as unbearable as it was in, for example, ‘Love the Coopers‘.
Joseph Gordon Levitt stars as Ethan, an adorable sad-sack whose parents died one Christmas. Luckily, his two best buds Isaac (Seth Rogen) and Chris (Anthony Mackie) rallied around him and went out partying that holiday season. Now it’s an annual tradition, but since everyone is getting a little older, it’s getting difficult to keep bringing the gang back together. Isaac is about to be a father with all the stresses that implies, while Chris is now a famous athlete whose decision to shoot steroids into his ass caused his career to skyrocket. Ethan, on the other hand, is stuck making music that no one listens to and working dead-end jobs with no future. The annual Christmas parties are all he has going for him, especially since he recently torpedoed a relationship with girlfriend Diana (Lizzy Caplan).
It’s been decided that this will be their last X-mas bash and a night made especially special by the fact that Ethan finally scored tickets to the super exclusive Nutcracker’s Ball party. Isaac’s wife’s (the delightful Jillian Bell) even offers the special gift of a box with all the drugs under the rainbow to fuel their final wild night. It should be perfect, right? Well, unless everything goes wrong.
In accordance with comedy convention, everything does indeed go wrong, and leads to a series of increasingly ridiculous comedic episodes with all the boys, a parade of comedy cameos, and a second act split-up to fuel an emotional third act reunion. The plot isn’t exactly stacked with surprises, but it’s just a clothesline for jokes anyway and there are plenty of good ones here. A cell phone switcheroo lets a drugged-up Isaac engage in some complimentary dick-pick swapping, Chris is targeted to suffer a series of indignities inspired by Christmas movies of the past (mostly related to ‘Home Alone’), and Ethan plays straight man so that he can carry the emotional weight when the time comes. It’s the Rogen movie routine to the letter and thankfully it’s not broken yet, just getting a li’l rusty.
The biggest laughs come from the cameo players, particularly Michael Shannon. In a delightful work of self-parody suggesting a Christopher Walken-like future, Shannon plays a drug dealer/holiday angel who guides the boys’ consciences through weed and creepy off-handed remarks. It’s a movie-stealing performance and everyone else has to play catch-up. Director Jonathan Levine (‘All the Boys Love Mandy Lane’, ’50/50′) is more than the usual studio comedy hack, so he gives the movie a nicely heightened visual style and also teams up with Levitt to provide some surprisingly effective emotional resonance when the smoke clears. The hit-to-miss ratio on the gags is about 2/3, which is pretty good. It pretty much comes down to who’s delivering the jokes. If it’s Rogen or one of the side stars like Shannon, Glazer, Bell, Nathan Fielder, Mindy Kaling or others of their ilk, the laughs hit hard. If the humor is assigned to Levitt or Mackie, it could go either way. If it falls into the hands of a very unfortunate pop star cameo, a stony silence follows.
Ultimately, ‘The Night Before’ squeezes in just enough laughs and functional emotional beats to work. Sure, the rude/funny/sweet/repeat Rogen formula is growing increasingly creaky and the bulk of the emotional arcs here are tiresome, but the movie does its job. This isn’t a massively ambitious comedy or even a minorly ambitious one like ‘The Interview’. ‘The Night Before’ only sets its sights about as high as ‘A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas’ and succeeds thanks to an overqualified cast.
Still, Rogen is going to have to change things up a little bit if he wants to remain one of the big names in Hollywood comedy. Either he needs to get more ambitious in his stabs at drama or he needs to dive more fearlessly into R-rated yuks without a sentimental safety net. Whenever any star, franchise or formula gets to a Christmas chapter, it’s usually a sign that the end of the rope is near. Rogen seems smart enough to be aware of that fact, so hopefully he has a second act for his career planned.