Review: ‘The Night Before’ offers up a wild and heartfelt holiday adventure

One of the reasons “This Is The End” worked is because Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg were serious about the horror elements in the film, making the comedy even more of a pressure valve. If you're working to subvert a genre from within, you can't do it with tongue too firmly in cheek or you risk making a parody. With “The Night Before,” the script by Jonathan Levine, Kyle Hunter, Ariel Sfaffir and Evan Goldberg is not just a story set during Christmas, but is a very knowing and intentional “Christmas movie,” with any number of references to other Christmas films and with plenty of smart takes on the various tropes of the genre. It may be overstuffed the point of bursting, but there's much to like here.

Beyond that, though, “The Night Before” is a consistently funny and genuinely heartfelt story about three friends at a turning point in their friendship, and it should come as no surprise that Jonathan Levine gets the emotional side of things right. After all, the last film he made with Joseph Gordon Levitt and Seth Rogen was “50/50,” and Levine in general has made movies that land their emotional punches. This is his most manic film so far, and part of the fun of “The Night Before” is seeing just how wild a ride it is for the characters played by Gordon-Levitt, Rogen, and Anthony Mackie. They cover a lot of ground and get a chance to play with a big ensemble cast full of comedy assassins who steal scenes left and right, and I suspect this will be a film that people return to in future holidays, taking its rightful place on the list of films that become part of the annual tradition.

The film focuses on a specific trio of friends, brought together originally when Ethan (Gordon-Levitt) loses his parents just before Christmas in a terrible accident. Chris (Mackie) and Isaac (Rogen) show up at his house and take him out to get his mind off things and to keep him from being alone, and every year, they end up going back over the same ground, their spontaneous gesture of friendship becoming a traditional checklist. Now they've reached a point where both Chris and Isaac have lives that are pulling at them, calling them away and into adulthood, while Ethan seems to be stuck at a certain point, afraid to let go of the things that saved his life and get on with living it.

Chris and Isaac decide to take Ethan out one last time, telling him in advance that this is their goodbye to the annual routine. Each of them are dealing with their own turning points. Isaac's wife Betsy (Jillian Bell) is due to deliver their first baby any day, and Isaac has been focused on being the best new dad possible. Chris is a professional football player having the best season of his life, although it's happening suspiciously late in his career. They're both concerned that Ethan is never going to get his own life together, and they're starting to give up on their friend. Even so, they put their best faces on and head out for the evening, and all of them find themselves grappling with their own problems and with the changing nature of their friendship.

Rogen's storyline made me laugh like a lunatic at times. Betsy gives Isaac permission to have as wild a night as he wants, providing him with a box of every party drug imaginable, as a way of thanking him for being such a steady influence during the pregnancy. The way Rogen handles drug humor in his films is an interesting mirror to the way America's attitudes have changed in the last few years, and while most comedies in the '80s that featured drugs would have built in an element of scolding, that's not the case here. Instead, the humor comes from the honesty of just how out of control Isaac goes, and how badly he handles his combined chemicals. The relationship he has with Bell is based on trust and respect, and they're genuinely good partners.

Bell isn't the only supporting player who's been given something fun to do. “Broad City” star Ilana Glazer shows up and plays to her strengths as a Christmas-hating hottie who hooks up with Chris at a club, and Nathan Fielder wields his deadpan like a deadly weapon as the Red Bull limo driver who escorts the guys around for the evening. Jason Jones and Jason Mantzoukas show up as drunken Santa crawl Santas who run into Ethan at a particularly low point in the evening. Miley Cyrus and James Franco show up as “themselves,” and they play the most psychotic versions of themselves possible. Decades from now, when some enterprising film student writes his thesis on the epic onscreen romance between Seth Rogen and James Franco, this film will be another puzzle piece in that bigger picture. My favorite supporting performance comes from Michael Shannon as Mr. Green, the weed dealer who the guys end up visiting three times over the course of the evening in a wicked smart twist on the “Christmas Carol” model, and it may be the most delightfully weird work he's done since “Premium Rush.”

When you're making a movie that juggles this many different elements, you run the risk of it feeling overstuffed or uneven, and there are places where “The Night Before” wrestles with that. Ultimately, though, the film has to work based on the chemistry between Gordon-Levitt, Rogen, and Mackie, and the three of them are excellent together. It feels like this is important for Gordon-Levitt, playing this kind of normal and identifiable lead, after his hyper-whimsical and super-French turn in “The Walk,” which was apparently rejected outright by audiences. He's very good as Ethan, and he manages to score big laughs while also grounding the film emotionally. Mackie's character may be the hardest to relate to in some ways (I have never wrestled with the ethical implications of using performance-enhancing drugs), but when he starts to show the insecurity that hides behind that confidence of his, it's nicely done. Whenever the film is focused on the friendship between the three of them, it works on all cylinders, and it's often very touching in addition to being very funny.

Levine does a good job of creating a space for all of the various tones and ideas to somehow work together, and he navigates some tricky shifts along the way. More than anything, “The Night Before” works as a celebration of the way we all lean on the people around us, particularly during the holidays, and the value of being able to lean on our community. By the time the film finally brings us face-to-face with the narrator in a truly wacko coda, it's fine because so much of the movie plays so honest, and if you're looking for something that manages to balance sentiment with raunch in a surprising way as you grapple with your own family this holiday, “The Night Before” is a substantial and satisfying meal.

“The Night Before” arrives in theaters on Friday.