Seth Rogen has built a cinematic empire on the back of basically being a fearful Peter Pan. While a huge amount of his roles have centered around man-children caught in the throes of fighting their way out of arrested development, The Night Before manages to sit a little further along the timeline. He is also not the main focus in a film much more concerned with the difficulties in sustaining a friendship into adulthood than gross-out humor, or a bunch of dick and fart jokes. Although there are plenty of those as well.
The Night Before tells the story of Ethan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), Isaac (Seth Rogen), and Chris (Anthony Mackie), three best friends on Christmas Eve, following their annual tradition of getting schwasty and having a night out in New York. Isaac is getting ready to have his first child with his wonderful and supportive wife, and Chris is a full-blown celebrity having his best season yet in the NFL, but Ethan is still stuck in a place where making huge life choices is impossible.
Fourteen years earlier, Ethan's parents were killed by a drunk driver on Christmas Eve and Isaac and Chris wouldn't let him sit in depression. They took him out for Chinese food, karaoke, to see the tree at Rockefeller Center, and even went on a massive hunt for a white whale, urban legend of a Christmas Party, and every year since they follow that tradition. But this year is their last since Chris is becoming too famously important and Isaac is going to be a father, so Ethan is desperate to have this night be the best one yet.
None of this would work if it weren't for the three leads—and JGL, Mackie, and Rogen have chemistry to spare—making their friendship seem lived-in. There are moments of such authenticity in their relationship that it's surprisingly sharply observed for what is basically being sold as a "dumb" comedy. Many of the jokes here are built from the characters and the truth of their relationships and lives. Grounding a comedy that deeply in the world that it has built gives the film emotional stakes most comedies don't...which is why most of them are bad.
But with all this talk of emotional stakes and sharp observations, none of it matters unless the movie is funny and The Night Before delivers a steadily escalating cavalcade of laughs. The more time we spend with Rogen, Mackie and Levitt, the more we like them, root for them, and want to see everything work out OK, even when they're being dicks and doing dumb crap. While the film has a very stereotypical structure for a comedy (Friends fighting in the third act! Uh oh, will they make up in time for the movie to end?) and a couple of pretty pat resolutions, all of it works just enough to keep the goodwill flowing.
One of the main reasons so much of the film works is Jonathan Levine's direction. Instead of being shot by some of the typical comedy directors in the business, The Night Before is only improved by Levine's eye for authentic moments. Two of his films, The Wackness and 50/50, are easily overlooked 21st century classics, and while The Night Before isn't quite on the same level, it definitely sits comfortably in Levine's filmography.
Packed with great cameos (Michael Shannon steals this film with both hands as drug dealer Mr. Green), a few solid belly laughs and a surprising amount of heart, The Night Before won't change your life or even really give you a deeper connection to Christmas, but it's a good story well told. Not all films need to be that important. Some, like the very best of friends, are just there when you need them.
The Night Before
Dir. Jonathan Levine
Now Playing at Old Mill Stadium 16 & IMAX