It’s rare that a bit of extra time thinking about what’s essentially a stoner holiday film leads to a kinder review, but that’s the case here. Initially, I’d gone a bit more mixed on The Night Before, opting for a two and a half star review instead of a three star one, but an extra 24 hours (ironic, no?) has led me to realize that I enjoyed myself more than I originally thought. To be fair, all of the principals here, from co-writer/director Jonathan Levine to the main trio of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Anthony Mackie, and Seth Rogen have done better work, but the amount of chemistry here is just too good to ignore. Plus, the supporting performance of Michael Shannon (who I didn’t even know was in the movie) is perhaps my favorite surprise turn of the year, besides being one of the most amusing things he’s ever done. He’s insane, in the best way possible. Insanity kind of sums up The Night Before too, as it’s loose and messy in a way that you can’t always easily process. What makes this work in the end though is how it actually winds up sticking to and honoring Christmas movie conventions, obviously in it’s own raunchy way. The flick is very imperfect, but it’s more than enough fun to recommend. The Night Before won’t blow you away, but it will make you laugh.
For most people, the holiday season is a time for family. For Ethan (Gordon-Levitt) however, the loss of his parents a decade ago has led Christmas to be all about friendship and epic nights out with Isaac (Rogen) and Chris (Mackie). This year though, it’s meant to be the last time for the trio, as Isaac is expecting his first child with wife Betsy (Jillian Bell), and Chris has become a famous football player. They’re at ease with the tradition ending, but Ethan, still very much in stasis and dealing with his recent breakup with Diana (Lizzy Caplan), isn’t ready at all. If it’s going to be the last time though, Ethan wants it to be one to remember, and manages to acquire three tickets to “The Nutcracker Ball”, a legendary party they’ve tried and failed to attend each year. They begin with all of their holiday traditions, though things quickly get out of hand as Betsy has gifted Isaac with every drug known to man and he’s not handling his high very well. That leads to encounters with an unusual drug dealer named Mr. Green (Shannon), among numerous other occurrences. The Night Before doesn’t have too much of a plot, but it does set up enough amusing gags to work.
In terms of casting three actors with a ton of likability to their credit, it’s hard to do much better than Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Anthony Mackie, and Seth Rogen. That being said, while they have tremendous chemistry with each other, they all kind of go off in their own directions, limiting their effectiveness. Gordon-Levitt is technically the lead, but he’s got the least personality of the trio. We like him and feel bad for him, but it isn’t until the third act that he truly takes over as a romantic lead of sorts. Mackie is the most interesting, but he gets the least to do, which is a real shame. Rogen the simplest character, but his drug binge makes for the most comedy. The likes of Lizzy Caplan and Jillian Bell are underused, while I’ve already raved about how great Michael Shannon is here. I won’t say much about his role, but trust me that it’s memorable. Also on hand are Miley Cyrus (as herself), Nathan Fielder, James Franco (in a cameo of sorts), Ilana Glazer, Aaron Hill, Jason Jones, Mindy Kaling, Jason Mantzoukas, Tracy Morgan (as the narrator/Santa Claus, which is as random as it sounds), Randall Park, Lorraine Toussaint, Heléne Yorke, and more.
I generally like filmmaker Jonathan Levine’s work, and while this isn’t one of his top tier efforts like 50/50 (also starring JGL and Rogen) or The Wackness, this still works. He came up with the story and co-writes here with Evan Goldberg, Kyle Hunter, and Ariel Shaffir, though it’s a bit of a “too many cooks in the kitchen” type of a situation. Levine has a lot of fun with his direction, embracing and upending holiday genre tropes, but the script is all over the place. With a tighter screenplay, this could have been a modern classic. Instead, it’s just an entertaining flick that will come and go, albeit one that’s certainly worth seeing. As a quick side note, proving that he’s really everywhere, composer Marco Beltrami contributes to the score here. You may not notice that it’s him, but it’s partly his music, so make of that what you will.
In the end, The Night Before is nothing to go crazy over and is only getting a lukewarm endorsement out of me, but it’s still amusing enough to recommend. Again, my thumb was initially down, but some rest and a second look really did wonders for me. Especially if you’re a fan of one of the main trio in the cast, you’ll enjoy seeing the fun they’re having here with each other. You can certainly do better than this one this weekend, but you can do a lot worse too. When you get right down to it, The Night Before is funny enough to be worth seeing, albeit with the caveat that it’s hardly a perfect flick. If you want to laugh though, this is a solid bet…
–Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!