A movie like The Night Before represents a recent but wholly ingrained Yuletide tradition: the raunchy Christmas comedy. For as long as R-rated laughers have been bankable in the 21st century, there have been a few stocking stuffers meant solely for adults. These would be your Bad Santas and your Harold and Kumars.
Thus Seth Rogen’s The Night Before joins the dubiously illustrious ranks of fellow carolers that have sipped judiciously from the eggnog bowl. And I’m relieved to say that while it is hardly a Red Rider Beebee Gun, it isn’t a lump of coal either.
Rogen’s career might feature a few returned gifts, and after last year’s radioactive The Interview—which like any good American, I still paid to see—heading into The Night Before can feel a bit like a trip back to a demilitarized zone. Yet the comedian and director Jonathan Levine jump into the spirit of the season right with a better assortment of weed ‘n Christmas tree jokes than last year’s international festivities.
The pretense this time around is that three ride-or-die homies have been doing just that every Christmas Eve for 14 years. This is not because they lack for holiday magic. Far from it, actually. In spite of Isaac (Rogen) being Jewish, he and Chris (Anthony Mackie) have spent their many Christmas Pasts cheering up Ethan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), whose parents tragically died right before the 24th in 2001.
So every year, the trio trade in eggnog for some stronger stuff while tearing up Manhattan. That was until our current Silent Night. With Isaac having a baby on the way with his wife Betsy (Jillian Bell), and Chris becoming a suspiciously successful sports star late in his football career, this will be the pals’ last year to go jingle bells to the wall. And Ethan is silently furious.
But lest you stop believing in Christmas miracles boys and girls, it is upon this fateful day that Ethan also discovers tickets to the Nutcracka Ball, the most secretive and intensely hip Christmas Eve bash in all of Brooklyn. Let an evening of debauchery and hard learned lessons about male friendships begin!
Off the bat, it should be stated that if you’ve seen one film with either Rogen or Evan Goldberg’s name on the screenplay credits, then you’ve seen about all there is at the emotional heart of these narrative tribulations for man-children in a deteriorating bromance. And indeed, The Night Before’s script with its four listed authors (including Goldberg) deals with familiar flashbacks to childhood tradition, those quietly buried conflicts that erupt in a second act fight, and the epic(ish) reconciliation of fraternity during the finale. But it’s a credit to Levine that he can elicit still at least some sort of pathos to the well worn formula—mostly from Ethan’s plight as the friend left behind.
Luckily, much like the Christmas paper wrappings around the movie, this is just a prerequisite to get to the hopefully good, funny stuff inside. And the happy tidings I bring are that in the film’s best moments, it’s very funny, indeed.
More a collection of scattered Christmas-based comedy sketches, Levine and his affable cast of 30-somethings who still need to grow up take with good cheer to the material for a handful of sequences that hit hard and often. There is the much-advertised sequence where Isaac, stoned out of his mind, stumbles upon the Christmas Eve service his wife’s family is attending. It turns out shrooms and sudden guilt at the sight of Christ on the cross is not a good combination. Yet even better is a film that happily mines recent Millennial nostalgia for the ‘90s (as well as the ‘80s) to name-check a more recent style of Christmas hallmarks. While there are still winks to It’s a Wonderful Life, the film also ably and proudly calls back to Home Alone 2: Lost in New York (1992) and Alan Rickman’s Beethoven-loving death at the end of Die Hard (1988) for some of its best gags. Even GoldenEye on Nintendo 64 gets a shout-out.
Similarly, most of the cameos and supporting work lands. Of course, the Nutcracka Ball is an excuse for famous celebrities to get in on the action, including the much-publicized Miley Cyrus appearance. But a better running joke revolves around Michael Shannon as Mr. Green, the trio’s lonely marijuana dealer from high school. Fifteen years later, he still hangs out by their alma mater while giving them pseudo-sage advice and creepy come-ons about the meaning of Christmas. “You’re all my children, now,” he exudes while petting Rogen’s face.
Still, the appeal of this humor actually has relatively little to do in the way of Christmas. Indeed, other than a downright Capra-esque turn in the third act, Mr. Green would hardly be out of place in the better of Rogen’s comedies. Likewise, the best narrative threads of the film about becoming a father reflect more of Rogen’s enjoyable (and successful) Neighbors than the oft-referenced Kevin McCallister. The more Christmas-explicit ideas, such as a well-meaning but awfully executed pair Santa Claus bookend scenes, fall completely flat.
There is a definite personal story about growing up here, and Levine, who is also credited with writing that outline, finds some freshness in it via holiday blues despair. But it still lacks the bluntness of his previous R-rated comedy with Gordon-Levitt and Rogen, the sweetly melancholy “cancer comedy,” 50/50. By contrast, The Night Before is merely an above average rift on the buddies-need-to-grow up cottage industry in Hollywood comedies. And despite casting strong female performers like Bell, Mindy Kaling, and Lizzy Caplan, rest assured this is a boys’ club for guys in their 30s.
The Night Before is raunchy and frequently giggle-inducing. For those looking for these kind of jollies while in the throes of the holidays’ darkest moments (aye, Black Friday is almost upon us…), it will do the trick. But it’s hardly the naughty Christmas high that Bad Santa breathed into this nascent subgenre only a few years ago.