The latest effort in Seth Rogen’s continuing crusade to monopolise the film comedy market, The Night Before is at its heart, a Christmas movie. The movie makes some grandstanding toward ideas of acceptance and moving on and the season of giving among its endless barrage of hit or miss jokes, but it’s only partially successful when it comes to pulling those themes off.
The film was directed by Jonathan Levine (Warm Bodies, All the Boys Love Mandy Lane) and comes from a script written by him, Primetime Emmy Award nominee Evan Goldberg (This is the End, The Green Hornet), Kyle Hunter (The Interview, Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising) and Ariel Shaffir (50/50, The Interview).
The Night Before follows three lifelong friends, perennial procrastinator Ethan (two-time Golden Globe Award nominee Joseph Gordon-Levitt; The Dark Knight Rises, Looper), expectant father Isaac (Primetime Emmy Award nominee Seth Rogen; This is the End, The Interview) and doping professional athlete Chris (Anthony Mackie; Captain America: The Winter Soldier, The Hurt Locker), who gather together every Christmas Eve to hit the town and party, a tradition begun to cheer Ethan up after his parents were struck and killed by a drunk driver.
Understandably attached to the tradition, Ethan reluctantly agrees to designate this Christmas Eve the last one they spend together, as his friend’s lives have progressed to the point where they just can’t make time for it anymore.
When Ethan obtains tickets to the Nutcracker Ball, an infamous underground Christmas party accessible only by special invitation, the trio make their way across the city to get there only to be hampered by various mishaps and absurdities, namely Isaac’s descent into drug-fuelled madness and Chris’ desperation to obtain weed for a more famous team member to get on his good side.
The Night Before is often a fairly funny movie. There are plenty of laugh out loud moments to be found here, but the film takes an approach akin to throwing everything it has at the wall to see what sticks. There are plenty of great jokes among the flotsam, but for every hit, there are a few misses. It’s easy enough to overlook this, many comedies operate this way, but the script could have done with a little more refinement to cull the wheat from the chaff.
Likewise, the film is only partially successful when presenting its thematic elements. The movie takes a surprisingly thoughtful angle on a lot of elements of the plotline and harbours an admirable ambition to say something about friendship, growing up and escaping the shadow of fear. The Night Before is not especially successful at tackling these themes, with only the latter enjoying any real sort of success throughout the film, but the character’s individual progressions through these emotional arcs are helped by the presence of the mysterious drug dealer Mr. Green (Academy Award nominee Michael Shannon; Man of Steel, Boardwalk Empire).
Mr. Green is an absurd figure throughout the film, popping up every now and then to serve as The Night Before‘s version of the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future. It’s an utterly surreal inclusion and it works wonderfully, thanks largely to Michael Shannon’s brilliantly subdued performance and the way the character interacts with the main trio’s character journeys. He highlights the film’s themes, and while the character isn’t quite the one and done fix it all that the writers seem to think he is, he is an extremely effective inclusion and a fantastically funny scene stealer.
The three main characters each have their own individual vision quests to go on. To start with, Ethan is struggling with growing up and moving on from the things that defined his life when he was younger. He has commitment issues, a trait that brought down his last relationship with a woman named Diana (Primetime Emmy Award nominee Lizzy Caplan; Cloverfield, Masters of Sex), and there’s an unspoken implication running through every one of his scenes that suggests that he’s afraid to let go of what he has lest he lose what limited amount of control he has ascertained when confronted with whatever comes next.
He fears losing his friends like he lost his parents, and abandoning the trio’s holiday tradition strikes him as a deeply frightening sacrilege. Joseph Gordon-Levitt does good if unspectacular work and it’s nice to see him return to his comedic roots, especially for those of us who remember him as Tommy from 3rd Rock From the Sun. Ethan’s journey is the most successful of the three, largely thanks to it receiving the most screentime and being explored the most deeply, but its resolution feels cheap.
Meanwhile, Issac is desperately trying to get over his fear of fatherhood. He’s freaking out, but he’s been putting on a brave, stoic demeanour for the benefit of his wife (Primetime Emmy Award nominee Jillian Bell; 22 Jump Street, Workaholics), who is more open about her nervousness.
It’s her gift of a party mix of illicit drugs that sends Isaac down the rabbit hole. He ingests more and more unidentified pills as the film goes on and his underlying fear of parenthood surfaces. The plotline goes nowhere, but it’s a good excuse for Seth Rogen to stretch his wings a little.
Often earmarked as the neurotic guy, Rogen clearly has a great deal of fun taking that to its drug-fuelled extreme in a truly manic performance that marks his plotline as the film’s best from an entertainment perspective, despite its deeper flaws. It’s a hysterical turn with the kind of volume and craziness that is rarely afforded to the actor, and he makes the most of it.
Finally, there’s Chris, who feels like a total afterthought. He’s ashamed of his doping, avoiding his mother because he can’t stand how proud she is of him while at the same time desperate to gain favour with his team’s heavy hitters. His is the story of a man who loses part of himself upon achieving fame and it’s a slog because Chris is never successfully presented in a sympathetic manner.
He’s a cheater and he routinely behaves as if he has more important things to deal with than his two best friends, so it’s difficult to view the character with anything other then disdain. Add in a weird recurring aside with an insane fan (Ilana Glazer; Broad City, BoJack Horseman) that ultimately goes nowhere, and it becomes clear that the film has no idea how to get the character from emotional point A to emotional point B.
Look, The Night Before is fine. It’s certainly amusing on a superficial level, but it doesn’t have nearly enough wit to put it in the pantheon of great modern comedies. It has a great cast and it does try to address some bigger themes among the wildly unpredictable success ratio of its jokes, but ultimately it fails to do so in a satisfactory manner. And in so doing, it fails to distinguish itself as anything other than a serviceable, perfectly average comedy.