The set-up of The Night Before is simple enough. Joseph Gordon Levitt plays Ethan, an orphan who – since his parents died in 2001 – has marked Christmas Eve by going out on the lash with two of his best buds, Seth Rogen’s Isaac and Anthony Mackie’s Chris. They’ve established a fairly enviable tradition involving Chinese food, karaoke and camaraderie.
After setting this scene with a cosy introductory montage – complete with a nursery rhyme-style narration, which garners the movie’s biggest laugh – The Night Before fast-forwards to the modern day. Ethan is pining for his ex. Isaac is on the verge of fatherhood. Chris has become a famous sportsman. The three bros mutually agree that this Christmas Eve will be their final festive night out, and the end of their tradition.
You could be forgiven, then, if you expected a nice warm movie. A rumination on the importance of friendship, family and the festive season, with laughs wrought from the jovial escapades of three chums at the height of their merriness. But, as you may have already guessed, that’s not what you get.
Let it be stressed that The Night Before isn’t exactly warm-the-cockles-of-your-heart material. This is a movie where Isaac’s wife Betsy (played by Jillian Bell of 22 Jump Street and Bridesmaids), presents her hubby and the future father of her child with a gift-wrapped collection of drugs to mark his final night with the lads.
Yet the film descends drastically into dullness from there, as The Night Before becomes just another generic drug-fuelled night out flick. Clearly designed to play to Seth Rogen’s box-office-friendly strengths, this movie is effectively a stoner comedy parading around in a woolly jumper and calling itself a Christmas movie. There are wild hallucinations, mad mix-ups, and Seth Rogen vomits in the aisle of a Catholic church while wearing a Christmas jumper with a big Star of David on it.
In and of itself, though, the idea of a druggy Christmas movie could and should work. But The Night Before commits the biggest comedy cardinal sin of the lot – it’s just not funny. My prevailing feeling, as scene after scene of drug use tried to force a chuckle out of me, was that 21 Jump Street achieved far heftier laughs from the same topic, in just two minutes.
Of course, comedy is a hugely subjective medium. There’s every chance you might laugh at gags that I didn’t. I was in a fairly full screening room, though, and there barely ever seemed to be a giggle from any corner of the audience. At one particular moment, when the film clearly pushes for a big boundary pushing gut-buster of a gag, there was nothing more than a disinterested silence from me and those around me.
Also, from time to time, The Night Before feels derivative as well as unfunny. A few of Rogen’s hallucinations are very reminiscent of Jump Street, while some corporate sponsorship jokes (Mackie’s Chris has a Red Bull-provided limo) feel like a direct lift from Community’s Subway episodes. There are also references to classic Christmas cinema, which only serve to remind us of the films we could be watching instead.
You’d think the public-vomiting, unborn-child-insulting Isaac would be the least likeable character in the movie, but he’s actually not. Mackie’s Chris is established early on as a steroid user, and he spends the entire movie trying to impress his new sporty friends, neglecting his best buds and actively trying to avoid his mum. It’s hard to root for anyone in The Night Before, although Mr Levitt manages to escape mostly unscathed. By the time the film tries to refocus on his character’s personal story, though, you’ll probably have lost interest.
The supporting cast – including Michael Shannon as a drug dealer with a stock of weed that gives you ‘surprisingly accurate visions of the future’ (another of the film’s few laugh-inducing moments) – are mostly given very little to work with, and a few third act cameos fail to brighten up the movie in any significant way.
The only real positive here is that director Jonathan Levine frames everything pretty well. There are chases down alleyways, Santa street fights, and even a high-speed limo pursuit. Levine captures all of it with ease, and even adds a certain degree of visual flair.
It’s a shame, really, that The Night Before is as weak and uninspiring as it is, then. It’s never fun to write a negative review, but it’s even worse when you can imagine a far better version of the film than the one that ended up on the screen. With such an impressive cast and crew assembled, The Night Before really could have been more than what we actually get.
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