It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
Jonathan Levine’s “The Night Before” is another Seth Rogen joint in which the talented comedian/writer faces adulthood, learning that friendship can survive the journey to maturity. Throughout the raucous, drug-fueled comedy, Rogen’s character and his best friends speak repeatedly of this being the last such bash. It made me wonder if Rogen wasn’t heading off criticism of repetition in the past—yes, we’ve thrown this party before in films like “Knocked Up,” “This is the End” and “Neighbors” but this is really the last time. Whether or not that’s the case, “The Night Before” is a well-intentioned comedy with some big laughs and some big misfires, but it ultimately works because Rogen and his well-cast buddies ground it in a way that makes them likable. A killer Michael Shannon supporting performance never hurts either.
“The Night Before” opens with a literal Christmas tale storybook animation, narrated by Tracy Morgan in a way only he can. We learn of three best friends—Ethan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), Isaac (Seth Rogen) and Chris (Anthony Mackie)—who have been spending Christmas Eve together for over a decade, since Ethan lost his parents, doing their best to have as much fun as possible acting mostly like idiots. Blowing up snowmen, getting high and going to look at the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree, singing “Christmas in Hollis” at karaoke—they’ll do whatever it takes to make this holiday more memorable than the last, recognizing that emotions run high at the holidays and trying to keep Ethan positive.
The annual event is straining under the reality of adulthood. Isaac has a loving wife (Jillian Bell), who is well into her third trimester. He’s about to be a father for the first time—there can be no more holiday debauchery. Chris is dealing with a different issue altogether, having a breakthrough season on the football field, although he’s been using steroids to do so, recognizing that a 34-year-old athlete is past his prime. He also seems more concerned with his social media following than his real life. Meanwhile, Ethan is recently split from Diana (Lizzy Caplan), a girl who finally showed him the door after he kept refusing to meet her parents. He not-so-secretly wants her back.
Two events define the trajectory of “The Night Before”—Ethan stumbles upon tickets to a legendary NYC holiday party known as “The Nutcracker Ball,” while Isaac’s wife gives him a box of drugs to enhance the evening’s insanity. As the boys pre-game for the big party to come later that night, Isaac gets deeply messed up, allowing Rogen to display some truly bad behavior as he mixes mushrooms, Molly, coke, weed and more from his box of goodies. Meanwhile, Chris tries to buy some pot to impress the star quarterback on his team, leading the gang to Mr. Green (Michael Shannon), the same dealer they bought from back in high school. Comedy Central stars Ilana Glazer (“Broad City”) and Nathan Fielder (“Nathan For You”) pop up in cameos, and Miley Cyrus appears late in the piece in a very funny scene to remind us all that “Wrecking Ball” is a perfect pop song.