The Night Before manages to be both an irreverent and sincere Christmas movie, sure to be a holiday favorite (albeit a zany one) for years to come.
When Ethan's (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) parents are struck and killed by a drunk driver on Christmas, his best friends, Isaac (Seth Rogen) and Chris (Anthony Mackie) rally to his side, so Ethan doesn't have to be alone on Christmas. A night of celebrating the Christmas Spirit, in spite of Ethan's loss, marks the start of an annual tradition - where the guys meet-up and party the night away every Christmas Eve. Yet, each year, Isaac and Chris begin to worry the tradition is hurting more than helping Ethan - preventing him from growing up and moving on from his sorrow.
Now, with Isaac about to become a father and Chris busy with a professional football career, the friends mutually agree this Christmas Eve will be their last night of holiday debauchery. Thanks to a Christmas "miracle," Ethan is able to procure tickets to the biggest holiday party in New York City, The Nutcracker Ball, sending the friends on a journey of self-discovery (and the revelation that Ethan might not be the only one who has growing up to do).
The next in a steady line of successful collaborations between Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, The Night Before also marks the reunion of Rogen and Gordon-Levitt with director Jonathan Levine (50/50), for a holiday film that is equal parts heart and irreverent comedy. It's not the most inventive comedy that Rogen and Goldberg have produced nor is it a Christmas movie for all audiences; however, The Night Before succeeds in its goal of blending stoner hijinks and holiday spirit for a tale with broad rumination on the challenges of transitioning into adult life.
The Night Before isn't the first raunchy comedy set against a holiday backdrop; yet, where prior movies often poke fun at Christmas (and the people who enjoy it), Levine's film is actually a celebration of holiday spirit - as the main characters attempt to keep joy alive in an increasingly harsh world. It's a surprisingly subversive tale, playing off Christmas movie tropes in unique (and often hilarious) ways. Still, the balance can lean toward hearty laughs over developed storytelling, resulting in heavy-handed and half-earned narrative beats. In a generic comedy this wouldn't be a problem - except that Levine isn't just telling a stoner Christmas tale. At it's core, The Night Before is more a story of friends growing up and growing apart than it is a "holiday" film - ugly Christmas sweaters notwithstanding.
Nevertheless, The Night Before is still a hard-R rated movie. Packed full of sexual innuendo, penis gags, drug use, and racy jabs at pop culture, viewers will definitely want to think twice before bringing sensitive (or young) viewers along for this "Christmas" film. To their credit, and in stark contrast to less nuanced (and sometimes mean-spirited) Christmas movies, Levine is never sidetracked by risqué jokes - ensuring that each of his three leads, not to mention the larger message of his film, remains relatable and endearing throughout. The Night Before boys might do crazy things but they're each real people in the context of the movie - each one elevated by genuine moments of character drama that reinforce, rather than distract, from Rogen and Goldberg's eccentric humor.
The Night Before takes a page from previous Rogen acting roles - with likable (but silly) turns from the central three performers. Gordon-Levitt, Mackie, and Rogen don't do much with the their characters in the first act but once the introductions are over and Levine starts building on their archetypes and friendship, each of The Night Before's main protagonists is injected with enough nuance to keep viewers invested and sympathetic to Ethan, Chris, and Isaac - even in their biggest man-child moments. The stars are aided in their efforts by snappy dialogue and genuinely bizarre (but hilarious) comedy set-pieces that manage to meld the performers' varied comedy styles, off screen personalities, and holiday consumer culture, as well as respectful (though cheeky) handling of religion, into a cohesive experience.
With his co-stars mostly on oddball sidekick duty, Gordon-Levitt provides, comparatively, the group's straight man - balancing merrymaking with a subtle layer of hurt (that both honors Ethan's emotional struggle as well as moviegoers who might also experience heartache during the holidays). Mackie and Rogen play to type as a cocky ladies man (lost in his own fame) and an lovable father-to-be (enjoying one last drug bender), respectively, but even though they're supporting Ethan's story, both actors are given plenty of great moments (hilarious and sincere) with satisfying resolution to their individual inner-conflicts.
The Night Before also features an all-star cast of comedy favorites including Mindy Kaling, Jason Mantzoukas, Jason Jones, and Tracy Morgan, along with celebrity cameos that are better left unspoiled. In addition to regular Rogen collaborators, Levine takes full advantage of up and coming talents Jillian Bell and Lizzy Caplan, as well as Michael Shannon, who each play a pivotal role in the film, bringing the same balance of well-intentioned humanity and zany humor that makes the larger film so amusing.
The Night Before is exactly what viewers have come to expect from the men behind Superbad, Knocked Up, and This is the End. On it's own terms, Levine's film is an entertaining and thoughtful diversion. It's a playful and heartfelt holiday film with plenty of laughs and likable actors in lead roles. Still, The Night Before prioritizes big laughs over cohesive storytelling at points, though Levine still manages to inject quality character drama throughout - and due-to some extremely R Rated bits, is not for the whole family (putting it mildly). Ultimately, The Night Before manages to be both an irreverent and sincere Christmas movie, sure to be a holiday favorite (albeit a zany one) for years to come.
The Night Before runs 101 minutes and is Rated R for drug use and language throughout, some strong sexual content and graphic nudity. Now playing in theaters.
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