It’s hard to put into words exactly what makes a great Christmas movie. After all, there’s a part of everyone that just wants to enjoy something that embraces this festive season of family, friends, and bright lights. For me, the answer comes in the form of two simple word, genuine love. We root for A Christmas Story’s Ralphie to get his Red Ryder Carbine Action 200-shot Range Model air rifle because the family he comes from is just so damn authentic, just as we cheer for John McClane in Die Hard as he slaughters terrorists to save the wife he took for granted for far too long. This brings me to The Night Before. Advertised as a silly Seth Rogen buddy comedy/stoner romp, it would be easy to think that lighthearted and loopy fun is all this film has to offer. While that stuff is certainly delivered on in spades, there is a sweetness here lying below the surface that just may take it from throw-away holiday goofball party to a Blu Ray that gets popped in every Christmas.
The story centers on three “ride or die homies,” Ethan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), Isaac (Seth Rogen), and Chris (Anthony Mackie). Fourteen years prior, Ethan’s parents were tragically killed in a car accident right around Christmas, prompting Isaac and Chris to take him out on a crazed holiday romp to get his mind off it. So effective was this night of debauchery that they have re-united for a yuletide adventure every year since. However, things have changed this year. Isaac and his wife Betsy (Jillian Bell) are about to have a baby, Chris’ football career has taken off in a meteoric way, and as such, they’ve decided that this will be the final “Night Before.” Ethan, at a stalled point in his life and desperate to change his friends’ minds, procures tickets for the legendary “Nutcracker Ball,” said to be the most wild rager in New York City, and the journey to get there goes to some pretty strange places.
The Night Before is an absurd stoner comedy above all else, perhaps the most directly drug fueled film Rogen has concocted since Pineapple Express. This could have been disastrous with a lesser script, as it seems that just about every way to parody the classic Christmas stories has been done over and over again, and then again in A Very Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas. However, this film rather intelligently relies on it’s three talented leads and their chemistry to draw out the humor, the more absurd stuff serving as a frame for some very likable characters. Levitt, Rogen, and Mackie feel like a group of real friends, as opposed to a group of actors thrown together to pretend to be such for a movie. This camaraderie, along with the film’s enthusiastic willingness to go the maximum amount of ridiculousness to sell it’s snow covered gags, sell sequences that could have been flat otherwise. It feels like a crazy story that these guys would tell later one, embellished and exaggerated for the listeners entertainment. The supporting cast is rock solid as well. Jillian Bell, Lizzy Caplin (as Gordon-Levitt’s ex girlfriend) and Mindy Killing are great comedic foils, while Michael Shannon makes an absolutely hysterical turn as the group’s mysterious drug dealer.
However, the film’s secret weapon is it’s surprisingly mature dramatic heft. Don’t get me wrong, there’s no incredibly dark turn or out of place scenes with lots of crying all of a sudden, but there is something going on beneath the surface of each character. This isn’t a buddy movie where the buddies fight for arbitrary reasons the plot just decides to have, but because of a genuine tragedy that has taken Ethan in particular to a place of arrested development. While Gordon-Levitt slightly over-sells Ethan’s childlike manic persona at first, it becomes clear later on that this is a truly lost person who feels trapped in the young adulthood he never really got to have. At the core, the story is really about a group of friends who have taken each other for granted in one way or another, and need to re-discover just how much they care for each other. The film is directed and co-written by Jonathan Levine, who was behind the fantastic Rogan/Levitt collaboration 50/50. While he certainly loosens up his restrained style for most of the film, when he needs to pull back he does it in spades, ensuring that the scenes where the characters clash feel completely earned. Beyond that, the subplots that in any other movie would drag out forever come to surprisingly sensible conclusions, ensuring that the film doesn’t waste time on things that don’t really matter a whole lot.
While certainly not as strong as the greatest Christmas films, The Night Before succeeds at capturing the essence of what makes the holiday season so beautiful, while also plenty of the absurdly raunchy comedy that Rogen has made his trademark. It’s certainly the funniest stoner film to come along in quite some time, taking full advantage of just how well it’s three leads work together. If the family is causing a bit of stress this holiday season, and you need to be reminded why people enjoy this time of year, put the kids to sleep, and take the one brother in law that you do like out to this film. It just might re-invigorate your holiday cheer, if you’re not too busy searching for The Nutcracker Ball yourself upon leaving.