Not a creature was stirring.
When you’re talking Seth Rogen films, it’s a given that they’re going to be pretty juvenile. The question is whether they’re smart juvenile, as when Rogen spent last Christmas in North Korea, or just juvenile juvenile, as when he’s spending this Christmas a lot closer to home, New York City, in The Night Before. Just when it seems like the movie is going to succumb to its zanier instincts, though, some well-placed dollops of heart keep it from totally going under.
The job of main character in this one goes not to Rogen, but to Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who teamed previously with both Rogen and director Jonathan Levine on 50/50. JGL plays Ethan, a 33-year-old New Yorker whose parents were killed by a drunk driver some 15 years before, right during the thick of the holiday season. While it seemed like that Christmas was surely ruined, an unexpectedly warm tradition grew out of the tragedy: Ethan’s two best friends from high school, Isaac (Rogen) and Chris (Anthony Mackie), decided to sacrifice their own Christmas Eve – not such a problem for Isaac, since he’s Jewish – and spend it being Ethan’s new family.
But their ironic holiday jumpers are probably the only traditional part of what comes to be an annual celebration. They spend each Christmas Eve trying to outdo the debauchery of the previous one, with one particular white whale always eluding them: a secret Christmas party so elite that its location is not even revealed until 10 p.m. on Christmas Eve. In the present day, though, Chris’ football career has taken off and Isaac is about to become a father, while Ethan, having recently broken up with the love of his life (Lizzie Caplan), is still adrift. They agree, sort of mutually, to make this one the last hurrah. As luck would have it, Ethan has come into possession of three tickets to the mysterious party, and Isaac has been gifted a treasure trove of drugs – by his pregnant wife, no less.
Even though Rogen is not actually credited as a writer here, all the familiar Rogen concerns are present, and by that we mean characters doing goofy things while stoned. (With the odd fixation on gay jokes, which remain juvenile even while becoming increasingly less homophobic.) Except Rogen doesn’t stop at marijuana in this one. His little jewellery-sized gift box has representative samples of pretty much every narcotic known to man, some of which haven’t been widely consumed since the 1970s. And this is representative of the overstuffed, upping-the-ante quality of The Night Before in general.
It’s kind of like Rogen has taken everything he thought worked well in one of his previous movies, including a moment involving blood that hearkens back as far as Superbad, and turned the volume up to 11 on it. This, unfortunately, is a recipe for disaster more often than it’s a recipe for hilarity. And this movie does careen toward disaster almost constantly, barely staying on the rails at any given moment. Movies about epic nights involving unexpected detours have to be really funny to hit it perfectly, and that’s the most troubling aspect of The Night Before: the laughs are few. Rogen’s behaviour under the influence of seven or eight drugs at once is supposed to account for much of the humour, but he struggles with these scenes in a way he hasn’t in the past, and it drags the whole movie down.
The Night Before also kind of rings false. For starters, it’s hard to really believe these guys are best friends, not because they’re of different races or religions, but just because their personalities are so different. Then the plot details are pretty shabby, organised around set pieces that don’t really work and logic-straining missions, like Chris having to continually acquire (and lose) a supply of weed he’s trying to secure for his teammates, and Ethan chasing down a phone he accidentally switched with another friend. What makes these detours extra frustrating is that they delay the trio’s arrival at the party by hours, yet no one seems stressed out about that fact. If your evening is focused on an event that’s 15 years in the making, and you make an unscheduled stop at somebody’s mum’s house to play Nintendo 64 and sit down to a late dinner with her, you should be showing the impatience embedded in that scenario. That these characters don’t is an even bigger problem than some of the misfired set pieces.
Fortunately, The Night Before does have its heart in the right place, and that sentiment shines through at just the right moments. There’s also a fantastic cameo it would be a shame to spoil. This character gives the whole movie a dose of the unexpected that’s regrettably lacking in the rest of it. Again, though, the film’s tendency toward overstuffing rears its head with two other big-name cameos that we could have done without. The Night Before also works hard to jam in references to other Christmas movies, though those generally do work.
Where will Rogen be next Christmas? It’s anybody’s guess, but let’s hope it’s someplace funnier.