I’m a big supporter of the Seth Rogen/Evan Goldberg outrageous comedies. This is the End might prove to be one of the best mainstream comedies of the decade. I walked into The Night Before with the incorrect assumption that this was another similar jam, and while it technically is, there’s something more subdued going on in The Night Before. I have to believe that comes from director Jonathan Levine’s involvement, seeing as he has the “and” part of the screenwriting credit denoting that he worked on a version of the script without the cooperation of Goldberg, Kyle Hunter, and Ariel Shaffir who collaborated together. That’s where a fundamental disconnect with previous Rogen romps occurs, but that may not be a completely bad thing in the long run.
The story of these three friends is definitely one that allows for a little nuance. Ethan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) lost his parents fourteen years ago and his buddies Isaac (Seth Rogen) and Chris (Anthony Mackie) have spent every Christmas with him partying. When the movie kicks off, we see that Ethan hasn’t really grown up or gotten over this loss while Isaac and Chris are being swallowed up by their own lives. With this being the last year they will be partying together, Ethan has found a way into a legendary party that promises to be the craziest experience in town.
That sounds like a good basis for lots of wacky stuff to happen and it certainly does, but there’s a grounded nature to a lot of the movie that makes it stand apart from its contemporaries. This pays off in the end with an emotional flashback to the trio’s first Christmas together that actually made me tear up a bit. If the heart of the story is what you’re after, The Night Before has a big beating one.
But, that ends up being somewhat detrimental to the comedic pacing of the movie. The Night Before is by no means a non-stop chucklefest. There’s even a patently bad sequence involving a runaway sleigh that belongs in a much more conventional Christmas comedy. While This Is the End, Superbad, The Interview and Pineapple Express derived a lot of their humor from ridiculous scenarios, The Night Before has a lot more character-based humor. Not as many straight jokes are present in this film, and while that will probably turn some audiences off, it means that the actors are given a little more substance to work with when it comes to crafting a funny moment.
It’s unfortunate that Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character feels the most underdeveloped compared to Rogen and Mackie. His role as the focal point of the movie takes a big backseat to a drugged-out soon-to-be-a-daddy Seth Rogen who won’t winning over any new fans. I love Rogen so I found most of his bits to be the funniest parts of the film, but it’s very easy to see someone getting tired of his schtick early on. Mackie’s character is probably the most interesting: an athlete who has just found fame at the time when most players are considering getting out of the game. His arc of learning humility and that his teammates aren’t really his friends carries the most weight by the movie’s end.
The true standout of the film is the mystical Mr. Green played by Michael Shannon. He’s been the boys’ drug dealer since they were in high school and every scene with him elevates the film to the level of odd that I expected from the film. I don’t want to say too much about his character because you just have to experience his particular brand of zen stoner for yourself.
Though, it’s Mr. Green’s character that hints at a more off-the-wall comedy that got toned down when Levine stepped in. The opening of the film (narrated by Tracy Morgan) feels like another remnant from a weirder movie, telling the backstory of our lead characters through goofy Christmas poetry that the characters actually say out loud at times. Maybe the film would have been more outlandish in another version, but would that have been at the cost of my teary-eyed climax?
If all you’re looking for out of The Night Before is a good number of laughs, you’ll get that, but it’s by no means on par with some of the other films Rogen and company have become (in)famous for. There wasn’t a point in the movie where I went into hysterics, but I certainly chuckled and giggled and even guffawed a few times. The heart and the friendship of The Night Before was what I’ll be taking away from the experience, but that may come across as mushy or saccharine to some. But, if there’s ever a time to get mushy and saccharine, it’s Christmas.