An R-rated Christmas comedy, The Night Before is a festive After Hours party through New York City with a trio of buddies on their last carousing Christmas Eve. They started the holiday party tradition as teenagers when Ethan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) was unexpectedly orphaned and alone. His best friends wanted to give him some Yuletide cheer and help him mourn. But now, years later, they’re moving on without him. Isaac (Seth Rogen) is married with a kid on the way, and Chris (Anthony Mackie) is a big football star. Ethan’s still adrift, without steady employment and freshly broken up from his most recent, and most perfect, girlfriend (Lizzy Caplan). He has commitment issues to everything but his Christmas traditions, and is clinging to this one last great time.
He wants it to be a perfect night of drinking, karaoke, Chinese food, and fellowship. He even scored tickets to a legendary secret party, the best in town. Naturally, his clinging to an ideal night is part of what makes it all go wrong in a cavalcade of hilarious antics involving drugs, slapstick, misunderstandings, and the fumbling loose patter of modern comic dialogue. What follows is a terrific comedy, quick and charming even when it’s just dawdling around with its leads. The throughline is the amiable chummy spirit, a hangout vibe that lets each guy’s personality breathe and bounce off the others in amusing fashion, as the night gets progressively odder. They have great sociable chemistry, convincingly close, like longtime friends who know how to twist the knife of an observation, but care enough to look out for each other’s mistakes.
They’re growing apart and recognize that, but are willing to try to keep their relationships strong. As a result, they’re often great company as they try their best to have a good time. It’s funny enough and fast enough to make me forgive it for being yet another crude comedy about man-children who need to be indulged before finding a family and settling down makes them finally grow up. Director Jonathan Levine (50/50), who co-wrote with Kyle Hunter, Ariel Shaffir, and Evan Goldberg (Superbad), keeps the focus on the three guys and their problems. Because it’s rooted in real and understandable pain, and the movie’s narrative arc and comic engines are built on the unproductiveness of their partying lifestyle, it avoids certain bro-centric traps. The women's roles are underwritten, but there are none of the cheap shots found in other movies of this ilk. This is a basically kind movie, plenty of dirty banter but basically nothing in the way of cruelty.
It helps that they’re real characters, not punchline machines. One is struggling with adulthood, while his slightly more mature friends are worried about fame and babies and what their lives mean. A convincing grounding in real insecurities drives the emotions behind the silliness, a charming tension between the high emotional pressure of the holidays and the desire to cut loose and forget their troubles. Mackie’s jock is desperate to stay cool in the eyes of his fans, teammates, and sponsors. Rogen’s wife (Jillian Bell) gives him a box of drugs – a free pass to get high one last time before their baby arrives, a scary milestone he’s a total mess over. And Gordon-Levitt flashes his boyish charm, but you can see the fear of his economic and emotional instability bubbling underneath.
So they each have their problems to work out as around each corner they encounter drunken Santas, an excited limo driver, an oddball drug dealer, a homeless Grinch, surprise sexts, and other assorted comic scenarios (each involving a recognizable actor, each more unexpected than the last). It’s episodic, and therefore a little hit and miss, but I found the ratio to be fairly high as situations escalate to big laughs on a consistent basis. A highpoint is Rogen, sweaty, panicked, progressively higher, and almost-but-not-quite freaking out throughout in one of his very best performances, whether talking to a nativity scene, admiring another man’s equipment, or vomiting during a midnight mass. Levine balances the picture, though, letting each lead, and most of the supporting cast, have great little moments of surprise, humor, and warmth. Mackie gives chase to a groupie who stole his pot. Gordon-Levitt gets relationship advice from a drunk pop star. At one point, the guys stop to play Nintendo 64, for old time’s sake. They just want to have fun while they can.
A winning movie that had me smiling from beginning (with rhyming storybook narration) to end (with declarations of love), it’s filled with as much holiday spirit as raunch. Unlike a Hangover picture’s smutty cynicism, The Night Before breathes with genuine humane feeling behind its sweet and filthy jokes. It is, after all, a Christmas movie, filled with cozy messages of love, hope, self-improvement, togetherness, and the power of Miley Cyrus’s “Wrecking Ball.” Likable people learn valuable life lessons after an eruption of wackiness, deciding to stop clinging to a tradition’s specifics. Instead, they grow to appreciate embracing evolving relationships while maintaining the spirit of traditions. It’s a simple message that you could fit inside a Hallmark card, but good luck finding one that comes with glitter and tinsel, but also joints, booze, Run-DMC, bad sweaters, a car crash, and a fight or three. It’s a crackling one-crazy-night Christmas comedy more than earning its right to bust guts and warm cockles on a yearly rotation.