A very funny and often surprisingly sincere send-up of Christmas movies, The Night Before is a broad studio comedy that's about more than just jumping from big laugh to big laugh. That's becoming more scarce every year as studios seem content to check off formulaic boxes, making these kinds of movies feel like they're just collections of sometimes-humorous scenes and not a cohesive part of a larger whole; maybe one of the best things that could be said about The Night Before is that it actually feels like a complete story worth telling.
The Night Before
Director: Jonathan Levine
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, Anthony Mackie
Narrator Tracy Morgan opens the movie in a storybook-style rhyme, setting up how Ethan's (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) parents died in a car crash in 2001 and how his buddies, Chris (Anthony Mackie) and Isaac (Seth Rogen), have become his de facto family ever since. Every year, the trio celebrates Christmas together and participates in the same traditions: karaoke, Chinese food, a hip-hop riff on the FAO Schwarz floor piano moment from Big, etc. But Chris has become a famous football player, and Isaac is married and about to have a child, so they decide to participate in their yearly celebration for one final time...and it just so happens that Ethan comes across tickets to the Nutcracker Ball, an epic, almost mythical party the gang has wanted to attend for years.
Director Jonathan Levine, who reunites with his 50/50 stars Gordon-Levitt and Rogen here, isn't afraid to mix sentimentality with his comedy, and as cheesy as some of that can feel, it gives the film a beating heart and helps us care about the characters. Gordon-Levitt brings a nice expressiveness to the wounded, emotionally stunted lead clinging to the past, while Mackie fits right in to the comedic landscape and gets a handful of solid moments. The trailers make it seem as if Rogen spends the majority of the movie on an extended drug trip, and that's true, but as someone who's getting really tired of seeing the same "crazy" depictions of being high on film in major studio comedies over and over again, I was pleasantly surprised with the way this story handles those tropes.
I don't want to oversell this movie — it's not a comedic masterwork or anything — but it's consistently funny and kind of sweet, with plenty of subtle (and not-so-subtle) references to Christmas movies of the past, tipping its hat to everything from It's A Wonderful Life to Die Hard. The supporting cast — especially the women — are solid, as expected when you have people like Lizzy Caplan, Mindy Kaling, Jillian Bell, Nathan For You's Nathan Fielder, and Broad City's Ilana Glazer rounding out the cast. But it's Michael Shannon who was the biggest surprise for me, who, in an inspired riff on A Christmas Carol, plays a wonderfully weird drug dealer our trio encounters three times throughout the night.
(Vague spoilers ahead.)
Unlike so many modern comedies that encourage overgrown man-children to remain trapped in their arrested development, The Night Before allows its leads to actually grow and change as people. Something so simple probably shouldn't feel so noteworthy, but considering the state of comedies right now, it's a nice change of pace. It also plays a little like a romantic comedy, but while there's a will-they-won't-they angle to the relationship between Ethan and his former flame Diana (Caplan), the tropes are centered on the three male leads. Circumstances cause them to break apart and then (predictably) reunite, but amid all of the Christmas-themed zaniness, the movie points out that maintaining friendships gets tougher as you get older and makes the case for putting in enough work to keep them alive.
Amusing, whimsical, and occasionally poignant, The Night Before is a satisfying entry into the Christmas movie canon.