Movie Review: “The Night Before”

Seth Rogen, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Anthony Mackie, Jillian Bell, Lizzy Caplan, Michael Shannon
Jonathan Levine

Every year, a new crop of Christmas-themed films arrives in theaters to help kick off the season, but apart from 2003’s awesome trio of “Elf,” “Love Actually” and “Bad Santa,” Hollywood hasn’t had much luck producing movies worthy of shaking up the usual rotation of holiday classics. Nobody really expected Jonathan Levine’s “The Night Before” to join that illustrious club, but it seemed like it would at least be a fun diversion from the barrage of serious Oscar fare by adding a bit of frat-humor debauchery to the Christmas movie festivities. Unfortunately, it’s not very successful, because “The Night Before” is at best a fleetingly funny comedy that ranks as Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s weakest collaboration to date.

For the past 14 years, best friends Ethan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), Isaac (Rogen) and Chris (Anthony Mackie) have spent every Christmas Eve together, a tradition that started as a way to console Ethan after he lost his parents in a car accident. Now in their early 30s, the guys have mutually agreed to end the annual tradition for various reasons: Isaac and his wife (Jillian Bell) are expecting a baby, and Chris, a pro football player who’s found fame late in his career, is simply too busy. Ethan, meanwhile, is still reeling from his breakup with longtime girlfriend Diana (Lizzy Caplan) and is worried that he’s about to lose his friends as well, but when he fortuitously comes into possession of three tickets to the Nutcracker Ball – an ultra-exclusive party that the guys have been trying to get into since their first Christmas Eve – Ethan figures that they can at least go out with a bang.

There’s not much of an actual plot to “The Night Before,” and what little there is doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. After all, Christmas Eve is only one night a year, so the idea that Isaac and Chris suddenly won’t be able to hang out with their friend anymore doesn’t just seem ridiculous, but downright shitty of them. They don’t waste any time kicking Ethan to the curb, either, as Isaac spends most the night in a drug-induced state of weirdness and paranoia, while Chris obsesses over impressing his superstar teammates. Ethan’s subplot has a bit more meat to it, but it’s a familiar take on the typical coming-of-age story that’s driven by his desire to win back Diana. The three characters are such wildly different people that their friendship doesn’t even feel believable, and to make things worse, the actors never really click as a group, despite the fact that Rogen and Gordon-Levitt exhibited such great chemistry in Levine’s 2011 cancer dramedy “50/50.”

The biggest problem, however, is that many of the hijinks that occur throughout their wild night on the town aren’t particularly funny. Rogen is given more screen time than his co-stars, and fares the best of the trio as a result, but while his character’s drug-fueled escapade is mildly amusing, the joke quickly wears thin. The rest of the film is pretty scattershot, although it does include some fun supporting turns by Michael Shannon as a weed dealer whose product delivers “A Christmas Carol”-like visions of the past, present and future, and “Broad City” star Ilana Glazer as a real-life Grinch who delights in spoiling people’s holiday cheer. “The Night Before” improves considerably once the guys finally arrive at the Nutcracker Ball, but by that point, it’s a little too late to make a difference. Though fans of Rogen and Goldberg’s previous movies will be more forgiving of its flaws, even they may find that it’s surprisingly short on honest-to-goodness laughs.