Film Review: ‘The Night Before’

the-night-before review
Courtesy of Sony

Boys will be boys in this raucous Yuletide comedy starring Seth Rogen, Anthony Mackie and Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

Seth Rogen takes the high holidays literally in “The Night Before,” a raucous drug-fueled ode to the seasonal spirit’s power to help man-children mature into responsible adults. Little more than a Christmas-y spin on many of the actor’s prior comedies, Jonathan Levine’s film nonetheless generates significant humor from its tale of three lifelong friends who come together on Dec. 24 for one last night of go-for-broke New York revelry — this time with the aim of finally attending the renowned Nutcracka Ball that has for the past 14 years eluded them. Brimming with R-rated naughtiness before, per formula, turning far too nice, it’s a profanely festive odyssey that should far exceed Rogen’s controversial 2014 year-end effort, “The Interview,” and place closer to the jolly box office territory of last summer’s $150 million-grossing “Neighbors.”

Reteaming with both co-star Joseph Gordon-Levitt and director Levine, his collaborators on 2011’s cancer dramedy “50/50,” Rogen dons a bold white-and-blue sweater emblazoned with a giant Jewish star as Isaac, a lawyer on the verge of having his first child with wife Betsy (Jillian Bell). That daunting duty doesn’t, at the outset, seem to intimidate Isaac. Yet cracks in his calm-and-cool facade begin to materialize once he embarks on a nocturnal adventure with best friends Chris (Anthony Mackie), a football star whose sudden fame at age 34 is the product of steroids, and Ethan (Gordon-Levitt), a lonely, going-nowhere musician who’s getting over a break-up with Diana (Lizzy Caplan), and whose parents’ 2001 deaths were the catalyst for the trio’s yearly ritual of getting smashed on the night before Christmas.

Given a heavenly gift box of narcotics by Betsy, Isaac hits the town alongside his buddies in Chris’ Red Bull limousine — a perk of his celebrity, which he nurtures via endless product-peddling social-media posts — and immediately begins chomping on handfuls of hallucinogenic mushrooms and then tempering his trip with snorts of cocaine. He’s the out-of-control lunatic of this merry threesome, and Rogen’s zonked-to-insanity performance is the lifeblood of “The Night Before,” giving it the sort of joyous, madcap energy that comes from letting loose with one’s closest comrades, even to the point of potential oblivion. As in a stellar sequence that finds Isaac trying in vain to achieve sobriety — an effort that results in bug-eyed glares and awkward elbow-on-knee sitting positions — Rogen is at his finest when in the throes of panicked, confused, paranoid substance abuse.

Mackie, meanwhile, exudes an amusing cockiness underscored by insecurity, fitting for a character doing his best to delight in attention that he knows hasn’t been virtuously attained. His fan-indulging bluster meshes nicely with Rogen’s outsized druggie daftness, as well as the aw-shucks mopiness of Gordon-Levitt, here condemned to be the unfunny straight man. Ethan’s desperate desire to cling to this Yuletide-partying procedure stems from his fear of losing touch with his surrogate brothers, just as his refusal to meet Diana’s parents — the cause of their separation — speaks to his terror over the changes that might come from acting his age. He’s the embodiment of the story’s hackneyed boys-becoming-men trajectory, and though Gordon-Levitt is charming, his Ethan is the buzzkill of these proceedings, which only truly hum when letting loose with unbridled impropriety.

There’s quite a bit of that throughout “The Night Before” as Ethan, Isaac, and Chris make their way from one cherished spot to another, including Rockefeller Center’s towering tree, the gigantic FAO Schwarz piano made famous by “Big,” a karaoke bar where they perform Run-DMC’s “Christmas in Hollis,” and Chris’ mom’s house, where they play a round of the classic Nintendo 64 video game “GoldenEye.” Those pit stops feature just a few of the script’s many shoutouts to ‘80s and ‘90s pop-culture artifacts, which are sure to play well to Rogen’s (and the film’s) thirtysomething target audience, and which come across as authentic examples of these characters’ inability to stop clinging to their adolescent pasts.

Considering the hijinks-heavy nature of this endeavor, which in subject matter and attitude recalls 2011’s “A Very Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas,” some incidents prove less fruitful than others — such as a strained gag involving Isaac inadvertently switching phones with Diana’s friend Sarah (Mindy Kaling), and then contemplating a homosexual affair upon seeing the explicit crotch-shot pics she receives from an admirer named “James” (one guess as to that mystery man’s real identity). Fortunately, “The Night Before” proceeds with such go-for-broke momentum that any lulls in the action are quickly eradicated by the next wacko bit. The finest of these concern Rogen’s Jewish Isaac engaging in ludicrous dialogue with Christians (and their messiah), especially at a misbegotten visit to midnight mass. Equally inspired are the trio’s meetings with a pot dealer who provides the protagonists with “A Christmas Carol”-by-way-of-THC visions of their past, present and future, and who’s played by Michael Shannon as a more deadpan, mellow-but-menacing version of his usually hyper-intense on-screen self.

As with so many comedies about men learning to discard their hedonistic ways in order to confidently embrace roles as husbands, fathers and grown-ups, the film inevitably becomes a schmaltzy slog that tsk-tsks the very behavior it’s previously celebrated. Still, a few climactic Nutcracka Ball cameos partially mitigate this devolution into dreary earnestness, as does a subtle — if insufficiently explored — idea about the way holiday traditions bind friendships even when marriage, kids and jobs threaten to unravel them. While females are merely around to help facilitate their male counterparts’ transformations, this boys-will-be-boys saga is buoyed by its cast’s uninhibited enthusiasm for sex-and-weed-and-bodily-fluids madness — as well as by a score chockablock with holiday standards, and visuals awash in warm, twinkling lights, that cast a simultaneously vulgar, heady and heartfelt seasonal spell.

Film Review: ‘The Night Before’

Reviewed at AMC Empire 25, New York, Nov. 11, 2015. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 101 MIN.

Production

A Sony Pictures Entertainment release of a Columbia Pictures presentation, in association with Good Universe and LStar Capital, of a Point Grey production. Produced by Evan Goldberg, Seth Rogen, James Weaver. Executive producers, Nathan Kahane, Joe Drake, Kyle Hunter, Ariel Shaffir, Barbara A. Hall, Ben Waisbren.

Crew

Directed by Jonathan Levine. Screenplay, Levine, Kyle Hunter, Ariel Shaffir, Evan Goldberg. Camera (color, widescreen, HD), Brandon Trost; editor, Zene Baker; music, Marco Beltrami, Miles Hankins; music supervisor, Gabe Hilfer; production designer, Annie Spitz; set decorator, Chryss Hionis; costume designer, Melissa Toth; sound (DTS/SDDS/Dolby Digital); supervising sound editor, Michael Babcock; re-recording mixers, Michael Babcock; visual effects supervisor, Jeff Campbell; visual effects, SPIN VFX; stunt coordinator, Jeffrey Lee Gibson; line producer, Michael Flynn; associate producer, Shaun Burke, Alex McAtee; first assistant director, Jonathan Watson; second assistant director, Sandi Greenberg; casting, Henry Russell Bergstein, Allison Estrin.

With

Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, Anthony Mackie, Lizzy Caplan, Jillian Bell, Mindy Kaling, and Michael Shannon.

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  1. Todd Holmes says:

    I think this movie should be shown on a double-billing with Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ.

  2. This movie is significant in that the sweaters the guys are wearing were featured in an episode of “Shark Tank.” TipsyElves is a goofy little company started by two goofy guys, who are now multi-millionares who run a very, very, very large goofy ugly sweater company. All because of those sweaters you see above the review. That should inspire you. Much more so than yet…another…Seth…Rogen…and…Joseph…Gordon….Levitt…buddy…comedy. Was James Franco not available, or would casting him make it too painfully obvious that Rogen has nothing new to bring to the table, save for re-gifting his films to his dwindling fan base, using the same co-stars, and playing the same character over and over? I used to be a huge Rogen fan, until “Observe and Report.” After that….not so much. He still has potential to win me back, because he’s just that funny, but only when he breaks away from what has now become overly familiar, and offers something new. Like he did in the movie that put him on the map- “Knocked Up.” There is one exception, however- “This Is the End.” That movie is so funny, on so many levels in spite of yet again co-starring alongside James Franco, that I could watch it all day repeatedly.

  3. wiles11 says:

    Such a relief to know that Seth Rogen has included gay panic jokes in yet another movie. It’s the gift that keeps on giving to Seth Rogen, apparently.

  4. wiles11 says:

    Here, I rewrote the first sentence of that last paragraph for you:

    “As with so many Seth Rogen comedies about Seth Rogen and/or his friends learning to discard their hedonistic ways in order to confidently embrace roles as husbands, fathers and grown-ups, the film inevitably becomes a predictably schmaltzy Rogen-esque slog that tsk-tsks the very behavior it’s previously celebrated in order to make Rogen feel better about his own real life behaviour.”

    You’re welcome. No need to pay me.

  5. Hitch says:

    One of the worst trailers I have ever seen. Nothing even close to funny. Vomiting in church is supposed to be funny? Fail.

    • Stanley O says:

      Totally agree. I saw the trailer at the Arclight where the audience hissed and booed it at the end. Looks absolutely dreadful.

  6. Mr. Mike says:

    Hollywood jews continually insulting Christians, but scared to death of muslims.

    • Chuck says:

      It’s a damn shame that Hollywood can’t respect a large audience like CHRISTIANS. Do you think you would EVER see a Christian character vomit at a gay pride parade or in a synagogue? What a bunch of bigoted idiots. Hope this is a colossal fail.

  7. J Jenkins says:

    After reading this well-written article and watching the trailer, my only two questions are what studio moron okay’d this mess to be actually released and who are the investors stupid enough to finance this film. I am more interested in knowing who the investors are, so that I can “sell” them a few things, as they are obviously idiots with too much cash on their hands.

  8. Mitchell K says:

    Not interesting in seeing anything from the loud-mouthed ass Seth Rogen whose entire “Fred Flintstone as a sloppy Jew” act has grown ice cold. REALLY hoping this is a complete bomb, and judging from the trailer, it most certainly will be. The trailer is terrible with not a single laugh in it, and those are supposed to be the “highlights.” Even the dialogue was stupid. Going on and on about Miley Cyrus’ old record “Wrecking Ball? Really? Wow.

  9. CelluloidFan35mm says:

    Man, mainstream comedies have hit rock bottom. They have been getting worse and worse and you can add this POS to that list.
    It’s insulting and embarrassing.
    What the hell happened to REAL comedies?
    Is anyone even trying anymore?

    I’ll stay home and watch Christmas Vacation on Blu-ray. That movie is a REAL comedy.

  10. John says:

    This is another racist movie where schlubby Seth Rogen plays an explicitly Jewish character, while good-looking Jewish actors (Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Lizzy Caplan, this time) play non-Jews. As a matter of fact, despite being the son of two Jewish parents, Gordon-Levitt has never explicitly played his own ethnicity once in his entire 30 years of acting. Is there a problem, Joey?

    This is the same racist trick Rogen pulls every time. He always casts himself as an explicit Jewish character opposite non-Jewish characters played by good-looking Jews (Paul Rudd, James Franco, Dave Franco, Zac Efron, Halston Sage, etc.).

    And this new film is from the same studio, S.S.ony, that released last year’s Fury, about fighting Nazis during WWII. Fury starred no less than four Jews (Logan Lerman, Jon Bernthal, Jason Isaacs, and Shia LaBeouf), yet none of the characters were Jewish and Jews and the Holocaust were never mentioned. Gee, maybe they should have cast Seth Rogen as a “funny” Jewish soldier who died early on in the film.

    Actors of fully Jewish background: Logan Lerman, Natalie Portman, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Mila Kunis, Bar Refaeli, James Wolk, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Julian Morris, Adam Brody, Esti Ginzburg, Kat Dennings, Gabriel Macht, Erin Heatherton, Odeya Rush, Anton Yelchin, Paul Rudd, Scott Mechlowicz, Lisa Kudrow, Lizzy Caplan, Emmanuelle Chriqui, Gal Gadot, Debra Messing, Robert Kazinsky, Melanie Laurent, Shiri Appleby, Justin Bartha, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Margarita Levieva, Elizabeth Berkley, Halston Sage, Seth Gabel, Corey Stoll, Mia Kirshner, Alden Ehrenreich, Eric Balfour, Jason Isaacs, Jon Bernthal, William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy.

    Andrew Garfield and Aaron Taylor-Johnson are Jewish, too (though I don’t know if both of their parents are).

    Actors with Jewish mothers and non-Jewish fathers: Jake Gyllenhaal, Dave Franco, James Franco, Scarlett Johansson, Daniel Day-Lewis, Daniel Radcliffe, Alison Brie, Eva Green, Joaquin Phoenix, River Phoenix, Emmy Rossum, Rashida Jones, Jennifer Connelly, Sofia Black D’Elia, Nora Arnezeder, Goldie Hawn, Ginnifer Goodwin, Amanda Peet, Eric Dane, Jeremy Jordan, Joel Kinnaman, Ben Barnes, Patricia Arquette, Kyra Sedgwick, Dave Annable, Ryan Potter.

    Actors with Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers, who themselves were either raised as Jews and/or identify as Jews: Ezra Miller, Gwyneth Paltrow, Alexa Davalos, Nat Wolff, Nicola Peltz, James Maslow, Josh Bowman, Winona Ryder, Michael Douglas, Ben Foster, Jamie Lee Curtis, Nikki Reed, Zac Efron, Jonathan Keltz, Paul Newman.

    Oh, and Ansel Elgort’s father is Jewish, though I don’t know how Ansel was raised. Robert Downey, Jr. and Sean Penn were also born to Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers. Armie Hammer and Chris Pine are part Jewish.

    Actors with one Jewish-born parent and one parent who converted to Judaism: Dianna Agron, Sara Paxton (whose father converted, not her mother), Alicia Silverstone, Jamie-Lynn Sigler.

  11. Argos Wolf says:

    Can’t watch anything with Seth Rogen in it. One of the most overrated “actors” ever.

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