Jonathan Levine, along with Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Seth Rogen, crafted one of my favorite films of 2011, the “cancer comedy” 50/50. It was a beautiful blend of comedy and tragedy and the friendship at the center of it between Gordon-Levitt’s and Rogen’s characters made it a bromance movie in the best possible terms. This director-actors trio is back, this time with Anthony Mackie, in another bromance about three best friends who go looking for the ultimate Christmas Party in New York City on Christmas Eve in The Night Before.
Adam (Gordon-Levitt), Isaac (Rogen), and Chris (Mackie) have been involved in a Christmas tradition for 15 years, spending Christmas Eve together in a night of drinking, partying, and merriment. Their tradition was born out of tragedy of Adam losing his parents to a drunk driver before one Christmas when they were all in high school together, with Isaac and Chris creating this night of fun to help their friend. 15 years later, Isaac is on the verge of starting a family with his pregnant wife Betsy (Jillian Bell), while Chris is a famous wide receiver in the NFL. Their tradition is coming to a mutually agreed upon end. For the last several years, they have been trying and failing to get an invitation to an elusive underground Christmas party called the Nutcracker Ball. Miraculously, Adam lucks into getting his hands on an invite, leading to what could be the ultimate send-off of their tradition.
There is a lot to enjoy in The Night Before. There are plenty of scenes that elicit a lot of laughter, including a drugged up Isaac attending midnight mass with his wife and her extended family and trying futilely to keep calm and not freak out. In and of itself, the scene is funny, but it has an added bonus of Isaac being high on a combination of drugs that his wife gave him as a “reward” for being her rock, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson-style in her eyes, during her pregnancy, and wanting him to let loose, not realizing she would be in the path of the tornado later on that night.
The festive tradition that these three embark on has all of the makings of genuine fun and affections for one another. There are ugly sweaters. They re-enacting the scene from Big at FAO Schwarz, only performing Kanye’s “Runaway,” explicit lyrics and all, instead of “Chopsticks” or “Heart and Soul.” They go to the same place to eat every year and sing karaoke at the same bar. Even though Isaac and Chris are feeling like the tradition has run its course and are easily distracted by other things or other life events have gotten in the way, they don’t have the heart to tell their friend that things probably should have ended 3-4 years ago, which the story mines for some tension and unease between the three of them.
There’s a lot of comedy mined from Isaac’s drug use, something that they could only get away with in an R-rated movie, which the film earns through the drug references and some significant male frontal nudity in texts that is the result of mistaken phone swap at the karaoke bar. The film also features Michael Shannon in a surprisingly funny supporting role as Mr. Green, the dealer they used to buy weed from back in high school, who pops in and out of the film and their adventures.
Lizzy Caplan and Mindy Kaling also round out the cast, Caplan as Diana, a former romantic interest of Adam’s, while Kaling’s Sarah, Diana’s friend, has the unfortunate phone swap with Isaac. Chris gets into a protracted entanglement with a supposed fan, Rebecca Grinch (Ilana Glazer), who steals his weed. There are several funny cameos in the film as well.
While there are a lot of laughs, not all of them land, and the film is a little less consistent in the strength of its story than 50/50 was. The romantic subplot between Adam and Diana feels forced and less organic than it could be. Still, despite some of its flaws, there is a still solid friendship between this trio of guys that is at the center of the film that centers and grounds everything, no matter how crazy or fantastical things get.
It’s hard to make a Christmas comedy that hits all the right holiday notes and can also stand as a pure comedy as well. Like the annual holiday tradition between Adam, Isaac, and Chris, Christmas comedies themselves can become a tradition to some people or families. The Night Before doesn’t succeed in everything it does and its story isn’t as strong from start to finish as the previous collaboration between the director and two of these actors. But it gets some big laughs, it has a lot of holiday spirit, and its got a strong foundation in the friendship between these three friends that it has enough going for it.
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars