Every November and December studios release holiday-themed flicks to cash in on the frenzy of the season. Every once in a while a gem like Gremlins or Elf comes out and becomes yearly viewing, but what’s more common is a lot of middling fare that clogs theatres. It comes as a great pleasure that The Night Before is the former, rather than the latter. Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Seth Rogen, who previously worked together on Jonathan Levine’s 50/50, have a natural chemistry together, and pairing the two again is a total no-brainer. Throw Anthony Mackie into the mix and you have a gross-out comedy worth visiting every year.
It’s New York City, and three lifelong friends in the prime of their lives are going to have their biggest Christmas Eve of all time. Ethan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), Isaac (Seth Rogen) and Chris (Anthony Mackie) have spent every Christmas Eve together after Ethan’s parents died 14 years ago. That sad night became the foundation for one annual evening of drunken hijinks. Sadly, that regular get-together looks like it will be no more. Isaac is about to become a father; Chris is on the cusp of sports super-stardom. Ethan is trying desperately not to let this all slip away.
Still, if this tradition must end, then it must go out with the trio finally attending the Holy Grail of Christmas Eve parties, the Nutcracka Ball. The event has eluded them for 14 years, but this time will be different. By using his fame to plug products on social media, Chris has acquired a limo from Red Bull to ride around town in style, while Betsy (Jillian Bell) gifts her husband Isaac a box full of narcotics for him to celebrate with before he becomes a father. On the holiest of nights, Isaac spends midnight mass hissing at babies and talking at length (forgive the pun) about a dick pic. Seth Rogen carries the picture while he is hilariously messed up, immediately switching from aggressive to paranoid and gathering a lot of hell points along the way. Jillian Bell builds upon her brief, but standout role in 22 Jump Street and proves she is a force to be reckoned with on the comedy scene.
Never shy, Levine dives head first into all the sights and sounds of Christmas in NYC. The Rockefeller Center tree, the FAO Schwarz piano, and a karaoke bar where they perform Run-DMC’s “Christmas in Hollis”. 90s kids will also enjoy a detour where the gang heads to Chris’ mom’s house to play GoldenEye on the Nintendo 64. Despite all of this fun, Ethan mopes around, hoping to win back the affections of ex-girlfriend Diana (Lizzie Caplan). It’s a waste of Levitt’s natural charm, however the formula demands there must be a straight man for Mackie and Rogen to play off of.
Like a lot of Judd Apatow comedies, the story tempers the raunchy comedy with a dash of yuletide sweetness. No holiday movies avoid the lessons inherent in the value of friendship/family, and this film is no different. The Night Before takes an honest look at the vulnerability present in friendship once your twenties are over, while revealing that true bonds never break. Sure, it sounds smarmy, but the material never turns sickeningly sweet. Jonathan Levine knows his audience well enough to give comedy fans a few gags before the heart-warming lessons.
A few scenes are duds, but the film moves quickly enough that none of them linger. Though most of the film’s funnier moments have already been seen in trailers, Levitt, Rogen and Mackie gel together quite well, and just hanging out with them would be worth the price of admission, but Michael Shannon’s cameo as a Christmas Carol-esque ghost boosts the film to must-see. Shannon’s intense demeanor is used well in Take Shelter and 99 Homes, yet his deadpan is something to witness. The Night Before is a new holiday favorite to put on your party rotation.