Opting for humor over heart, The Night Before delivers hit-and-miss yuletide yucks that aim to remind everyone about what matters most during the holiday season. It’s material is built on largely familiar framework, but the likable characters and hilariously wonderful guest appearances are more than enough reason to add Jonathan Levine’s latest comedy to your moviegoing Christmas wish list.
For the last 10 years, Isaac (Seth Rogan) and Chris (Anthony Mackie) have spent every single Christmas Eve with their best friend Ethan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). It’s a tradition that began after Ethan lost both his parents around the holidays, but after a decade of drunken shenanigans not everyone is in the mood to party on. Isaac is about to become a first-time father, which has him feeling incredibly stressed over his abilities as a parent, and Chris has just become one of the most talked-about athletes in the country. They are both far too busy to continue getting inebriated with Ethan every Christmas season, so on the night this film takes place they have vowed to tell Ethan this outing will be their last.
Ethan, meanwhile, is preoccupied with a mission that began shortly after the trio’s tradition began. According to legend, somewhere in New York City there is a top secret party called the Nutcracker’s Ball that is allegedly the greatest holiday party on the planet. The location is kept a secret until the day of the event, and the only way to learn the address is to use a secret phone number made only available to those on the guest list. Ethan is not one of those people, but he does happen to work in the coat check area of a venue frequented by at least one such VIP, from whom he steals enough passes for he and his friends to have the night of their lives.
As the night begins the trio seem as happy as ever to be together, but not long after their first stop things start to fall apart. Isaac is high on a cocktail of drugs provided by his wife as part of a request to have the night of his life, while Chris is distracted by his continuously distracted by the demands of his growing fame. Ethan takes it all in stride for a while, but over time it becomes clear neither Isaac nor Chris are as invested in making the most of the night as Ethan, and this leads to a lot of friction between the friends.
Meanwhile, as the night carries on the group finds themselves in need of drugs. Each time this happens they call a man known as Mr. Green (Michael Shannon), who then proceeds to lead each friend on a personal journey. One visits Christmas past, one visits Christmas present, and one visits Christmas future. It’s the exact same setup as A Christmas Story, only this time there is a weed-smoking spirit guide played by the best actor of our generation and a beat-up car filled with drugs.
The Night Before could choose to deliver comedy and heart in equal measure, but instead the story serves as a backdrop for the kind of juvenile hijinks that have become a cornerstone of Rogen’s career in comedy. You see him overreact to his drugs, yell ridiculous things at strangers and electronic devices, and even witness him have a bad trip while making his first visit to a church. He even channels a bit of Bill Murray while being drug through the streets of New York by horses (something that also happened in Scrooged, which seems to have inspired the film’s five credited screenwriters in more ways than one) It’s nothing outside the box for the comedy vet, but it’s made to feel fresh and new with the addition of both Anthony Mackie and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Neither of these men have had near enough opportunities to showcase their comedic abilities, and here they are given the freedom to do just that. Gordon-Levitt fairs only slightly better than Mackie, but bother deliver funny turns ripe with hearty, well-earned laughs.
All that said, it’s really Michael Shannon who steals The Night Before. Mr. Green is a seemingly innocuous character whose role simultaneously becomes sillier and more important as the story progresses. As soon as his magical strains make themselves known, the entire film takes on a new flow and vibe. The tension between the friends begins to take a backseat to the personal journey each must overcome in order to tackle the larger problem at hand, and accomplishing that task provides numerous opportunities follow Shannon to put his quiet, gravely voice to good use. All the one-liners people will remember from this film are uttered by Mr. Green, and his longer bits of dialogue are not bad either. If everything in this film worked as well as this character we’d be discussing a new holiday classic right now.
I’ve learned to never expect too much from a movie that promises seasonal themed laughs, but I cannot help feeling as if The Night Before misses a great opportunity to be memorable by choosing to revel in its love of debauchery over the bond between its three leads. Levine has proven with films like Warm Bodies and 50/50 that he knows how to deliver a well-balanced story, but it seems somewhere in the process of bringing this tale to life he lost his way. By the time our leads have each completed their own journeys the time allotted for their shared resolution is far too short to leave you feeling satisfied. A quick glance to future holidays helps cover any questions left unanswered, but again you’re feeling as if the film has taken the easy way out. It seems that was a choice made again and again with this story, and as a result you, the viewer, ends up walking away while trying to shake the notion this movie should have been better than it is—even though as is, it’s still pretty good.