Christmas is always ripe for an R-rated comedy because it’s such a wholesome holiday. It can be a lot of fun to turn the holiday sweetness on its head, and get some naughty laughs out of a nice setting. That doesn’t mean going dark or mean-spirited, and while Jonathan Levine’s The Night Before revels in debauchery, it’s as big-hearted as a typical Christmas film. There’s not a mean bone in its body, and while it has an endearing trio of lead actors pushing a nice message of brotherhood with a sprinkling of “coming of age” mixed in, The Night Before never finds its comic momentum.
In high school, Ethan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) lost his parents to a drunk driver, but thankfully he was able to get through the lonely holidays with the help of his best friends Isaac (Seth Rogen) and Chris (Anthony Mackie). Over the years of making merry during Christmas Eve, they heard about the Nutcracker Ball, a fabled and highly exclusive party. This year, while working as a coat check elf, Ethan manages to steal three tickets, and races to get Isaac and Chris on board. They’re excited, but they also know they should end their raucous tradition. Isaac is about to become a father and Chris’ pro football career and accompanying fame has taken off. However, over the course of the night, the three young men learn to face their fears and learn that just because one tradition is ending, that doesn’t mean their friendship has to end with it.
The Night Before is always trying to find its comic stride, which is surprising when you consider all the talent involved like the brief but excellent supporting performances from Mindy Kaling, Nathan Fielder, and above all, Michael Shannon as a drug dealer the guys knew from their high school days, plus Levine’s skilled direction. It’s a movie that works in fits and starts even though you feel like this is a picture that should have you laughing hard and non-stop. Everyone is certainly committed and seems to be having a good time, but the balance is off.
A movie about the difficulty in maintaining male friendship is worthwhile, and would be good no matter what time of year it was set, but the chemistry between the male leads is only passable. The film strives to give each guy his own arc, and yet they’re trapped in a bubble. They seemingly haven’t made any new friends since high school, and while that’s possible—although it strains credulity with an NFL star like Chris—it also limits them as a group. The overall concept—growing up with your friends as opposed to apart from your friends—is solid, but the execution is scattershot because the movie is always trying so hard to chase down the next laugh.
Gordon-Levitt, Rogen, and Mackie are all fine comic talents, and yet they’ve been funnier in other movies. Gordon-Levitt gets burdened with the straight man role even though he’s the “immature” one of the group. Rogen’s performance is enthusiastic, but there’s a limit to watching people wig out on drugs, and his sweaty trip eventually becomes exhausting and repetitive. And Mackie helps round out the group, but his character is basically equal with Rogen’s minus the drug trip—the movie needs a third man to abide a rule of threes so it can play into a A Christmas Carol like structure.
Nothing in The Night Before is overwhelmingly bad, but it’s also frustrating to see flashes of greatness, especially when you know this cast and the director is capable of bringing this concept together. There’s just not enough warrant constant cheer, holiday or otherwise.