I probably wouldn’t believe me if I were you, but The Night Before is pretty great. It’s that rare studio comedy that makes comedy feel easy, one that’s broad and sweet-hearted without feeling like it A/B tested all its jokes with focus groups. Take it from me, a guy who didn’t really like Trainwreck, Bridesmaids, or Neighbors. As such, I know what you were probably thinking when you saw Seth Rogen and friends in their dumb Christmas sweaters smiling on the posters. You were thinking that this was probably some holiday-themed improv circle jerk. That you’ve already seen this movie. That at the very least, it was sure to contain the following scenes:
- One slow-motion bros montage set to hip-hop.
- At least one scene where a character freaks out on drugs with some wacky CGI.
- A cutesy gay-but-not-really-gay relationship between two straight actors.
- An “unexpected” celebrity cameo late in the second act starring a super famous celebrity doing something we would not expect that famous celebrity to be doing!
I wish I could tell you that The Night Before didn’t include these scenes. But in fact, the drug freakout is an entire plot point, and the celeb cameo is from one of the last celebrities I would ever want to give the satisfaction of being in on the joke. The Night Before doesn’t reinvent the genre. On a macro level, the only thing it does that’s not traditional is be good.
Luckily, The Night Before also has a few important things going for it. Firstly, it has Jonathan Levine, who previously directed Seth Rogen’s best movie, 50/50, as director. It also has genuineness, the willingness to go full R, a protagonist (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) capable of the full range of human emotions, and perhaps most importantly, a story that feels like it was fully written and then executed, rather than cobbled together from improv pieces. You can sort of tell when the director just sticks the camera in one place and lets the actors do 20 versions of the same scene, and there’s no hint of that here. With Levine, funny dialogue and visual storytelling aren’t mutually exclusive.
The Night Before immediately gets off on the right foot with a backstory narrated, in semi-rhyming couplets, by Tracy Morgan, whose voice could elevate the autobiography of Billy Bush. Morgan’s narration explains that 14 years ago, pals Isaac (Rogen) and Chris (Anthony Mackie), teamed up to make sure their buddy Ethan (Gordon-Levitt) wouldn’t have to be alone on Christmas Eve after losing both his parents that year. They get him drunk and stoned, and it becomes a tradition — until the present day, when single, under-employed Ethan can feel his friends slipping away, Isaac to impending fatherhood and Chris (now C-Rob) to his steroid-fueled NFL career (which is sort of a weird plot point, but whatever). To the point where they wonder whether their Christmas Eve tradition still has a place in their adulthood.
Is there still room for your friend-family when they start creating families of their own? It’s a sweet premise that seems like it comes from a genuine place. (Admittedly, it’s probably more cathartic for your single, only-child film reviewer of similar age as The Night Before’s characters). The man-child narrative has been done to death, but this isn’t really that: Ethan isn’t immature, just in a rut, and leaning on his bros because they’re all he has. It helps immeasurably that Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays him. He’s an actor who can make that fatalistic melancholy seem honest, in a way that, say, Zac Efron, or even Rogen, can’t. With his earnest intensity, manic neediness, and boozy New Yawk slur, it’s also fun to imagine JGL is playing Ethan as a parallel universe Shia LaBeouf.
Another huge point in The Night Before‘s favor is that the boys club’s female counterparts aren’t the usual shrewish sticks in the mud or idealized pretty “cool chicks” you usually get in these movies. They all have comedic chops at least comparable to the men, and rounded roles in which to work them. Workaholics‘ Jillian Bell plays Betsy, Isaac’s pregnant wife who has surprised him with a box full of drugs as a present. Broad City‘s Ilana Glazer plays a character named “Rebecca Grinch,” a beautifully-rendered Agent of Chaos who gets sex when she wants it, steals drugs and jumps off buildings while quoting Hans Gruber. (Marry me?) Most important of all is Lizzy Caplan, playing Ethan’s ex, Diana, whom he runs into on Christmas Eve. Sure, she plays the One Who Got Away Because He Couldn’t Commit (in this case because he refused to meet her parents – would that all relationship problems had this clear cut a cause), but The Night Before makes her so much more than that.
With everyone in Ethan’s life pressuring him to “Do something big! Christmas magic, man!” he “goes big.” With everyone watching. In what I read as an emphatic repudiation of the Love Actually school of relationships, which advises the man to be a lovesick lurker for years before perpetrating some Hallmark-approved fireworks display of public affection, Diana calls out Ethan’s public embarrassment for what it is: overcompensation. The way to a woman’s (or anyone’s) heart, says The Night Before, is to actually talk to her. And be honest about your feelings. If that’s a little hokey, at least it’s not horsesh*t.
Of course, all these story elements would be largely immaterial if The Night Before wasn’t, you know, funny. And it is. The comedic cameos, from Nathan Fielder as the driver of the Red Bull Limo to Michael Shannon as the mysterious “Mr. Green,” are so perfect they seem pulled directly from my subconscious. The script, from Levine, Rogen, Evan Goldberg, Kyle Hunter, and Ariel Shaffir (phew!), deploys just the right amount of the fantastic, and is sprinkled liberally with movie references in a way that doesn’t feel shoehorned. There’s clever meta-commentary to excuse its own story turns, including a Michael Shannon monologue about how “I’d been reading a lot of The Great Gatsby,” that had me laughing so hard I missed half of it.
The Night Before creates a satisfying resolution by keeping it small. It doesn’t promise career success, forever-after romance, or family conquering all, only the simple idea that friends can evolve and still stick together, and oh Lord do I feel terribly cheesy even writing that. But the truth is, I felt it. And The Night Before saw right into my corny-ass heart.
Grade: Four Slow-Motion Bro Montages and a Christmas Stocking Filled With Feelings
Vince Mancini is a writer and comedian living in San Francisco. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the UPROXX network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.