A Christmas comedy whose warm and fuzzy theme doesn’t get in the way of the hedonistic action fueling its laughs, Jonathan Levine’s The Night Before reminds us that while the families we choose can be just as important as those we’re born with, those bonds require conscious renewal in ways blood ties don’t. And that ‘shrooms and nose candy are as bad a pairing as eggnog and champagne. Seth Rogen frequently upstages co-stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Anthony Mackie without derailing the momentum of this up-all-night pic, which will have little trouble connecting with fans of outings like This is the End and Pineapple Express; meanwhile, Gordon-Levitt’s Mr. Lonelyhearts romantic quest offers some mistletoe to female auds less drawn to such mayhem.
Gordon-Levitt plays Ethan, who lost his parents as a young adult and found solace in his best buds Isaac (Rogen) and Chris (Mackie). So we learn in a welcome storybook-narration intro by Tracy Morgan, one of few elocutionists who could get away with rhyming “two thousand and one” with “became an or-phan.” Morgan explains their tradition of spending every Christmas Eve together, indulging in mischief both innocent and not while hunting for the exclusive Nutcracka Ball, a secret bash held somewhere in New York’s five boroughs.
Life being life, Isaac and Chris by now have reasons to discontinue this annual outing: Isaac and his wife are expecting a baby; Chris recently found fame as a pro football player. But Ethan remains adrift and needy, especially after breaking up with longtime girlfriend Diana (Masters of Sex‘s Lizzy Caplan). His string of crummy temp jobs pays off, though, when as a coat-check elf he discovers three tickets to the Nutcracka Ball. If the tradition is ending, at least it will be with a bang.
While the fellas pre-game the night’s big event with all the rituals they’ve established over 15 years — karaoke, the donning of atrocious holiday sweaters — the film gets less mileage from their antics than from a string of cameos, including sincere oddball Nathan Fielder as a limo driver who wants in on the action and Broad City co-creator Ilana Glazer as a libidinous and hilariously fervent disciple of the Grinch.
One bi-curious drop-in will surprise nobody who follows Rogen’s career; another wrings laughs from the abhorrent real-life phenomenon of Santacon, in which drunken louts pollute Manhattan neighborhoods one day a year in Santa costumes. But lest the film become a messy jumble of cameos, pop-culture references and THC-soaked A Christmas Carol nods via Michael Shannon’s perfectly-cast pot dealer, the shamble through Manhattan and Brooklyn draws momentum from an increasingly deranged Rogen: Isaac’s wife has given him a Whitman’s Sampler-style array of drugs so he can enjoy this last fling, and he can’t help trying to counter one bad trip with another, then another. Sweaty and desperate, the actor is as funny as ever here, destroying a Midnight Mass and exploding in I-can’t-have-a-baby tirades. Mackie and Gordon-Levitt just have to keep up.
As it careens from Christmas present to future to past under the deadpan guidance of Shannon’s Mr. Green, the movie gets distracted enough by its assorted comic baubles that it fails to become a Scrooged-level incarnation of Christmas miracles. But it offers more than enough laughs to justify taking time out from TV marathons of A Christmas Story, and maybe enough, at least for younger audiences, to become a pinch-hitter each year when established classics like Elf grow too familiar.
Production company: Point Grey
Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, Anthony Mackie, Lizzy Caplan, Jillian Bell, Mindy Kaling, Michael Shannon
Director: Jonathan Levine
Screenwriters: Jonathan Levine, Kyle Hunter, Ariel Shaffir, Evan Goldberg
Producers: Evan Goldberg, Seth Rogen, James Weaver
Executive producers: Nathan Kahane, Joe Drake, Kyle Hunter, Ariel Shaffir, Barbara A. Hall, Ben Waisbren
Director of photography: Brandon Trost
Production designer: Annie Spitz
Costume designer: Melissa Toth
Editor: Zene Baker
Music: Marco Beltrami, Miles Hankins
Casting directors: Henry Russell Bergstein, Allison Estrin
R, 101 minutes