While most everyone enjoys a good Christmas movie this time of year, one that gift wraps themes of family, friendship, and faith, others enjoy something that can take those ideas and wrap them in a healthy dose of drug and toilet humor. A film like Bad Santa immediately comes to mind as the nearly-impossible bar to reach, but The Night Before deserves to at least be in the same conversation with that holiday classic. Like the bastard offspring of Pineapple Express and Scrooged, this is a film that manages to stay incredibly sweet and endearing while wrapped in a cloud of weed smoke. It's bound to become an annual holiday tradition in a ton of households.
Writer/director Jonathan Levine gets a chance to reunite Seth Rogen and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who he worked with on the cancer comedy, 50/50, and once again he's taking some heavy themes and putting a fine touch of tinsel all over them. This time they're joined by the infinite cool of Anthony Mackie, who rounds out their nerdy trio of best friends having one final Christmas Eve bash through the streets of Manhattan. Isaac (Rogen), Chris (Mackie), and Ethan (Gordon-Levitt) have been best friends for years, ever since Ethan was orphaned while in college. Each year they celebrate the holidays together, but life is starting to get in the way. Chris is a famous football star now, while Isaac is about to become a parent for the first time. It's Ethan who is the odd man out; his life isn't really going anywhere, his girlfriend (Lizzie Caplan) dumped him, and he's working as an elf for the Christmas season.
As fortune and a little bit of thievery would have it, Ethan gets his hands on tickets to the sickest Christmas bash in the city, promising their final blowout will be one to remember. And how could it not be when Chris has them hauling around town in a giant Red Bull limousine, and Isaac is stoned out of his mind thanks to his pregnant wife's (Jillian Bell) gift of every drug on the planet. Ethan is put in the position of trying to keep his buddies on track spending time with one another rather than on their encroaching responsibilities, but can there really be such a thing when you grow up? The film posits whether it's possible to maintain friendships when family and career take precedent.
So right off the bat this isn't just another film about overgrown irresponsible man-children, it's about two guys who have accepted the burdens that come with maturity, and one who is afraid of losing the only family he has left. That said, they go through some off-the-wall stuff before figuring all that out, and the screenplay by Levine, Rogen, and others excels when it balances the believable with the bizarre. Clearly inspired to make an insane version of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, the film features Michael Shannon stealing the whole f'n show as the mysterious "Mr. Green". Shannon's quiet intensity (he even mentions it) has never been used to such great comedic effect, and every time he pops up, which thankfully is just enough and not too much, the film gets even funnier. But the main trio is great together, too, with Rogen getting to embrace the lovable stoner lug role he kind of left behind when he started making movies like Steve Jobs. Gordon-Levitt is the straight-man, and he's got such great emotional range that we can fully understand Ethan's trepidation over losing his friends. And then there's Mackie, who gets saddled with a weird steroid subplot and a weirder storyline involving a "Grinch" played by Broad City's Ilana Glazer, but he's always the guy who feels like he's just playing himself. In his case, that's a good thing. Even the female roles are given more attention than they typically are in these bro-comedies. Bell isn't saddled with the "overbearing wife" role that we usually find in these movies, and Caplan is perhaps the most real character of them all. In one scene, featuring a totally unexpected cameo by a huge celebrity, she basically shuts down all of those "love conquers all" fantasies that holiday movies tend to traffic in.
Overall, The Night Before is just plain fun. Levine has never met an old school rap jam he didn't like, and whether it's Run DMC's "Christmas in Hollis" or Pete Rock and CL Smooth's "The Creator", there's plenty of it to go around. While one expects there to be a happy ending with plenty of good tidings and good cheer, the sentiments are small and honest without going overboard. The Night Before is easily the best Christmas movie arriving this season, and it should be a gift that keeps on giving for a long time to come.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5