Review: The Night Before Is a Hilarious Holiday Trip

By Christopher Ortiz · November 24, 2015

 ‘Tis the season for Hollywood to serve up just about every kind of Christmas movie on a silver platter: inspirational, tragic, and now thanks to The Night Before, the stoner comedy as well. Contrary to what the critics of Seth Rogen's previous comedies may expect, the inclusion of drugs does not discredit the holiday message at the center of the film. Make no mistake — while the use of drugs like marijuana and cocaine fuel the fun of the film, there's no cynicism here to risk repelling audiences, and all three protagonists are developed equally. The result is a very funny R-rated Christmas film that tells a relatable coming-of-adulthood story with fantastic cameos from the likes of Miley Cyrus, James Franco, and Tracey Morgan. Yes. He’s back!

The film revolves around Ethan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who lost his parents on Christmas Eve 14 years ago. Shortly afterwards, his high school friends Isaac (Seth Rogen) and Chris (Anthony Mackie) vow to spend every Christmas with Ethan. In this way, they become Ethan’s new family and fill the void in his life as best they can. Every Christmas, they go out for hours of partying and drug-filled fun that’s both cathartic and nostalgic for each man. Unfortunately, newly-married Isaac has a baby due any minute, and Chris’ football fame has skyrocketed almost overnight. Ethan’s life has not progressed any because his pain continues to leave him making excuses for significant adult decisions, such as his failure to commit to his former love interest, Diana (Lizzy Caplan) despite their mutual desire for a future together.
When Ethan realizes his best friends are moving on, he plans a final hoo-rah and scores three tickets to the Nutcracker Ball, an infamous club party that’s sure to be the perfect swan song for the three’s adventures. Ethan, however, doesn’t want the fun to end because he fears loneliness, and this creates some of the film’s most compelling drama later on. It took four screenwriters, but The Night Before deftly balances character development in a realistic and often-hilarious way, at least most of the time. Some of the dialogue is admittedly on the nose, as it is in many Seth Rogen drug comedies, which results in some of the later, more dramatic beats coming across as somewhat forced.
Fortunately, the acting is top-notch here. There’s perfect comedic timing, improv, and excellent chemistry between the three leads and the supporting cast and cameos. Seth Rogen comedies have always been meticulously up-to-date with trends and social issues, and despite this film’s summertime shoot in 2014, it feels as if it were made just this year. The men may occasionally smoke weed and, in the case of Isaac, partake in mushrooms and cocaine, but each have been given a very realistic human treatment.
Mackie’s Chris has finally achieved football stardom after years of going along unnoticed, and while he keeps his commitment to Ethan every Christmas, he has his own problems with fame concerning his mother. Isaac plays the façade of a prepared, noble father, but he's just as terrified of the imminent baby as his wife, Betsy, and doesn’t want to disappoint her. Ethan’s struggle to grow up is understandable — never childish — and his tragic background often reminds us that this is a film about the holiday spirit, albeit one with occasionaly clunky drama and a funny fight scene involving two Bad Santas.
The women are given good treatment here as well. Betsy is a likeable and surprisingly understanding wife; never an antagonist to Isaac and his friends’ tradition. She herself provides them with the drugs to make their final night special in a way she knows will make them happy. Mindy Kaling is another fine addition to the cast. Though lamentably tied to the superfluous yet oft hilarious dick jokes, she also has great chemistry with Rogen during Isaac’s aftermath with mushrooms. Lizzy Caplan is also great but her chracter deserved more screen time due to her significance in Ethan’s life. As a result, she's never fully realized as a character. Her acting saves her from feeling like a cliché, but on the page, she’s rather sparsely drawn. The standout is Ilana Grazer as Rebecca Grinch, both comedically and physically. Her last name gives away her role, but she’s a helpful reminder to the leading men about the spirit of the season.
With its balance between nostalgia and stoner comedy antics, homages to past Christmas classics like Home Alone and a score that’s suitably Christmas-y at times, The Night Before is a great addition to the Christmas comedy genre — one that never forgets its relatable message about coming-of-age. So many drug comedies of this type are wrongfully-marketed in a way that makes the male characters appear childish and stupid to generate laughs (often at the expense of women), but this film never goes too far in that direction. The envelope is pushed just enough for a suitably hilarious experience, but with just enough attention to character and theme for soemthing more meaningful too.