To say that my expectations for The Night Before were low would be something of an understatement. While I could accurately be described as representative of this film’s target demographic, I lost interest in the severely oversaturated man-child raunch-com market years ago. I was therefore understandably surprised when, leaving the theater, I realized I hadn’t hated The Night Before as expected. In fact, I enjoyed its highlights quite a bit.
This is certainly not a film driven by meticulous scripting. Sure, there is a loose narrative structure, and our protagonist does complete a character arc, such as it is. But The Night Before was clearly never intended to be a thoughtful examination of personal growth. When young Ethan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) loses his parents to a drunk driver on Christmas Eve, his friends Isaac (Seth Rogen) and Chris (Anthony Mackie) conclude that intensive partying is the best therapy they can provide. Fifteen years later, Isaac is a married lawyer expecting a child, Chris is a successful professional athlete, and Ethan has remained an underemployed emotionally avoidant wastrel clinging to his friends’ tradition of Christmas debauchery to avoid his problems. This is the full extent of the plot this film offers. However, The Night Before’s underdeveloped and overly predictable story is overshadowed by strong improvisational comedy and excellent use of its ensemble cast.
One of the film’s smartest decision was to cast Gordon-Levitt, rather than Rogen, as the developmentally stunted loser railing against his inevitable transition into adulthood, a role the latter has embodied in the vast majority of his oeuvre. While Rogen is rarely an incentive for me in any film, I don’t find him completely objectionable in limited doses, and here he carries his b-plot competently without overstaying his welcome. Where The Night Before shines is in its cameos, giving B and C list television celebrities small but narratively significant roles. These bits work more often than not (with notable exceptions being an obligatory James Franco incursion and a thoroughly obtrusive turn from Miley Cyrus) and lend depth without detracting from the proceedings. Michael Shannon, however, single-handedly redeems this film with his turn as the gang’s pot-dealing former high school teacher/guardian angel, Mr. Green. Jacob Marley meets Clarence from It’s a Wonderful Life by way of Tommy Chong — Shannon’s character is portrayed with a masterful blend of gravitas and absurdity that undercuts the saccharine pandering of the third act.
Closer in tone to Bad Santa than Elf, The Night Before is likely to succeed in establishing itself as a revisable holiday mainstay, though not as a classic of the genre. If you think this film might be for you, then it probably is. If you’d rather vomit during midnight mass than see another Seth Rogen movie, avoid this one like the brown acid. But if you’re on the fence, give it a shot; you might be pleasantly surprised. Rated R for language and drug use throughout, some strong sexual content and graphic nudity