After the eggnog sweetness of holiday movies, the hilarious and heartfelt “The Night Before” is a bracing holiday chaser that will still warm you up. Seth Rogen, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Anthony Mackie play three best friends out to celebrate their traditional “Night Before Christmas” party one last time. Two are facing mounting responsibilities of adulthood while the third flounders in arrested development.
Ethan (Gordon-Levitt) lost his parents in a car accident at this time years ago, and when his two friends come over on Christmas Eve to cheer him up, their holiday ritual of partying, Chinese food, karaoke, drugs and alcohol was born. No matter how excessive their fun becomes, no one can forget the tragic motivation behind it. On this year, which they have decided will be their last, Isaac (Rogen) is about to become a father, while Chris (Mackie) is a professional athlete enjoying a performance-enhanced boost to his career that has afforded him a new level of fame.
Almost every supporting role is filled by a great comedian, especially the females, which include Mindy Kaling, Lizzy Kaplan as Ethan’s ex-girlfriend, and Ilana Glazer as a gleefully demented Grinch. Most refreshing is Jillian Bell as Isaac’s pregnant wife, a woman so nonjudgmental she actually gifts her dutiful but secretly petrified husband a little box of assorted drugs so he can really let loose with his friends. Have you ever seen a non-harpy pregnant wife onscreen? I can’t think of one, at least not in a comedy like this.
The boys launch their revelries with an extra boost: at his miserable catering job, Ethan stole three tickets to the Holy Grail of holiday parties in New York, a fabled secret gathering called the Nutcracker Ball, a long-held dream for the trio. While Chris uses the evening to promote himself on social media, Isaac avails himself of his wife’s gift of drugs, with hilarious results. Rogen’s escalating drug trip is nightmarish and hysterical, especially when he begins to receive texts of illicit photos after an accidental phone switch with Kaling.
Into this evening of silliness rides the magnificent Michael Shannon as mysterious weed dealer Mr. Green, who is wonderfully strange. Chris has to bring some weed to the Nutcracker Ball to impress the star quarterback, and fortunately we get several opportunities to climb into Mr. Green’s famous car and experience his character. When Shannon turns that sinister mug of his toward comedy, it’s even more disarming.
Celebrity cameos by Miley Cyrus and James Franco don’t hurt a bit, especially when Franco and Rogen dance and celebrate the bromance we have seen between the two so many times before. Rogen has made men feel better about being scared to grow up in many roles already, but the relationship between the friends is still worth watching. For all their bad behavior, they genuinely care about each other.
Despite all the gross, ridiculous things that happen in this movie, this is not an anti-holiday movie like “Bad Santa.” “The Night Before” has genuine relationships portrayed by good actors, and it is, at times, truly romantic. It might not supplant “It’s a Wonderful Life” in the pantheon of required December viewing, but I recommend giving it a spot in your holiday rotation.
“The Night Before” is currently available to rent.