The Night Before hits all the right notes of a classic holiday film combined with the profane humor and bromance we’ve come to expect and love about writer/star Seth Rogen. Self-aware and mature about its immaturity, the film is comfort food of the finest order, pizza by way of Michael Symon or Anthony Bourdain. After a turbulent week or so, laughing your ass while Rogen’s character does everything but while high on a medley of drugs is just the right medicine, trust me.
Isaac (Rogen) and Chris (Anthony Mackie) are the best friends of Ethan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) with a Christmas tradition stretching back to 2001 when Ethan lost his parents: going on a bar crawl while questing for the mythical Christmas party the Nutcracka Ball. However, 14 years later, Isaac is married with a baby on the way and Chris has found fame as a football star while Ethan remains in neutral and recently broken up from Diana (Lizzy Caplan). The three aging friends agree to end their tradition with a bang after Ethan steals tickets to finally get them in to the fabled rager.
While occupying a supporting role, Rogen is such a superb comic performer that he leaves Gordon-Levitt and Mackie struggling to keep up. Though that’s perhaps for the best as their capable hands anchor the film beyond Rogen’s antics. Of the two, Mackie is the weak link, with the least satisfying subplot of the group. Gordon-Levitt, the lead among the trio, handles the requisite love story with aplomb. It helps that Lizzy Caplan plays his ex to explain the lengths he goes to prove his love again.
The standouts without a doubt is Jillian Bell, hilarious and atypical as Isaac’s pregnant wife Betsy who gifts him the copious drugs that fuel his night and Michael Shannon as weed dealer Mr. Green. Shannon, known for his intense and searing performances, is the film’s pseudo-spirit guide, as if the angel from It’s A Wonderful Life found some pineapple express and decided it was a better way to change fates. This is the kind of guy who refers to his customers as his “children.” Yes, it’s as amazing as it sounds.
Rogen and Gordon-Levitt reunite with their 50/50 director Jonathan Levine for what’s pretty clearly a palate cleanser after that funny but more muted cancer dramedy (and the international incident that was The Interview). The camera flourishes and various ways Levine shows Isaac’s trip belay a steady hand that perhaps Rogen and co-writer Evan Goldberg thought was needed after making their directorial debut on 2013’s This is The End (speaking of which, a not-so-surprising cameo provides one of the biggest laughs).
Like his previous writing efforts like The Interview and Neighbors (which has a sequel in production for release next May), The Night Before combines raunchy R-rated comedy with the reality of maturing and coming to terms with age, parenthood and other midlife shit. It originates from Rogen’s ascendance under mega-producer Judd Apatow but where his mentor’s films are often treacly and long to the point of suicide-inducing, Rogen & Goldberg and their collaborators keep their films light and loose, never taking themselves too seriously.
If you can get past jokes about dick pics and cocaine nose blood, you’ll get to a story about brotherly bonds, growing up and the dangers of psychedelics, The Night Before is more-or-less what you expect where it counts and that’s ok. It’s a worthy addition to the holiday rotation.