‘The Night Before’ Review: The Lump of Coal of Raunchy Holiday Comedies
’Twas the night before Christmas, and all through New York City, three actors starred in a holiday comedy that failed to be witty.
The Night Before opens with a similar Christmas rhyme by Tracy Morgan. In the film, Seth Rogen, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Anthony Mackie play a trio of buddies that have an unusual holiday tradition. Forget baking cookies and wrapping presents, Isaac (Rogen), Ethan (Gordon-Levitt) and Chris (Mackie) have partied their way through Christmas Eve for years, hitting up the same karaoke bar to sing Run-DMC’s “Christmas in Hollis,” play the giant piano from Big, and consume lots of drugs and alcohol, all while wearing holiday sweaters. But after a decade of festive partying, the three never managed to snag invites to the Nutcracker Ball, the Eyes Wide Shut of secret, exclusive Christmas parties.
Fast-forward to a decade later when the boys are all grown into men, sorta. Isaac is married with his first baby on the way and Chris is an emerging pro football star, but Ethan is the one who didn’t totally make it. Working catering jobs and sulking on his guitar as he scrolls through photos of his ex-girlfriend Diana (Lizzy Caplan), Ethan hasn’t achieved much. Now on their final Christmas Eve outing before they put the traditions to rest, Ethan
magically finds steals three tickets to the Nutcracker Ball. To make matters more chaotic, Isaac’s super cool and overly understanding wife Betsy (Jillian Bell), every man-child’s dream spouse, gives him a little box full of all kinds of drugs.
Watching Rogen trip his face off on excessive amounts of mushrooms, Molly, and cocaine sounds like his typical madness. And I love me some outrageous substance-infused Rogen shenanigans, from Pineapple Express to This Is the End. But The Night Before is not collaboration between Evan Goldberg and Rogen like those earlier films; it’s directed and co-written by Jonathan Levine (Warm Bodies, 50/50), with Goldberg, Ariel Shaffir, and Kyle Hunter all earning writing credits. While the humor’s plenty raunchy, the film around it attempts to be a more thoughtful, sentimental story about family, growing up, and facing the fears of the latter to build the former. In a way, that makes The Night Before sound like the ideal mature stoner comedy, one that teaches man-children how to grown up while still having some fun. The only problem is Levine isn’t sure how to balance those extremes.
As a film that celebrates the holiday classics that came before it – there’s loving nods to Home Alone, A Christmas Carol, and How the Grinch Stole Christmas – Levine’s film is more rooted in telling a story of friendship over stitching together nonsensical comedic scenarios. As admirable as that is, Levine’s mawkish moments continually miss the mark. After Ethan’s friends ditch him on the way to the Ball, he mopes and gives a speech about the spirit of Christmas to two drunk guys in Santa costumes. But a grown man praising the lasting magic of Santa Claus on the verge of a breakdown isn’t funny; it’s just pathetic and sad. With awkward, uneven writing, The Night Before never quite figures out what it wants to be.
There are a handful of scenes in the film with comedic potential, like Isaac, Ethan, and Chris showing up in the toy store to play Kanye’s “Runaway” (couldn’t they have picked a newer song?). But a lot of the film’s best material was spoiled in the trailers, and a lot of its weaker material feels recycled from other holiday comedies. How many times has a nativity scene been the object of humor in a Christmas film? How many more times can a Jewish character joke about Jesus? Many of the gags are passed their expiration date; comedy clichés that would’ve felt fresher two or three years ago.
Amidst all the coal in The Night Before‘s stocking, there is a fun batch of celebrity cameos. Michael Shannon’s Mr. Green, the sketchy weed dealer the guys called back in high school, is the best part of the film by far. Ilana Glazer does some parkour and gives us a “Yas queen” moment, Nathan Fielder plays a limo driver, and Mindy Kaling has some nice beats as Diane’s Miley Cyrus-loving best friend. The “Wrecking Ball” singer also makes an appearance as herself, making a Hannah Montana joke and giving a mini performance. The other celebrity playing himself is (unsurprisingly) James Franco, who makes some jokes about his sexuality for the umpteenth time.
Although sprinkled with some good scenes, The Night Before falls short of bridging the gap between adult humor and family Christmas comedies. Perhaps growing up isn’t that fun after all, and leaving the mischief in the past is necessary to embrace the realities of adulthood. Or maybe watching stoner boys grow into the responsible fathers just isn’t a story worth telling. Luckily, The Night Before marks the end of Isaac, Ethan, and Chris’ crazy Christmas Eve tradition so we won’t have to endure it again.