Deck the halls with weed and mushrooms, Fa-la-la-la-la, la-la cocaine.
That’s pretty much the mindset that this film occupies. Combine a Christmas movie with a stoner movie and you’ll get The Night Before, the latest comedy starring Seth Rogen. Those who have seen Rogen’s past efforts (This is the End, Neighbors, The Interview) are well aware of what to expect by this point: vulgar humor, pop culture references, and a laid-back, improvisational approach to storytelling. The Night Before is no exception, and whether that’s a good or bad thing is entirely dependent upon the viewer’s tolerance for that sort of thing.
Me? I laughed when I saw it, in spite of myself. The Night Before is equal parts naughty and nice, relishing its raunchiness while pausing for sobering, heartfelt moments as well. This is a film about friendship, forgiveness, growing up, and the spirit of Christmas… that also features a scene in which Rogen, wearing a sweater bearing the Star of David, vomits in the middle of a church during Christmas Eve service.
The film concerns three childhood friends—Ethan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), Chris (Anthony Mackie), and Isaac (Rogen)—who are on the cusp of some big changes in their lives. Before adulthood claims their freedom to party forever, they gather on Christmas Eve for one last night of bacchanalian shenanigans. On a quest to find the Christmas party to end all Christmas parties, they traverse from one outrageous set piece to the next. This is not so much a story as it is a collection of things that happen.
Like with all Rogen comedies, the sheer level of talent assembled is impressive. In addition to the believable chemistry and snappy banter of the three leads, there are also hysterical supporting turns from actresses Jillian Bell (22 Jump Street) and Mindy Kaling (The Office), who often overshadow their male costars with their radiant comedic timing. But the most brilliant—and surprising—comic performance of the film comes from Michael Shannon (yes, General Zod from Man of Steel) as the mysterious marijuana dealer Mr. Green. He runs away with the film.
But too often the humor relies on lazy pop culture references and random celebrity cameos that will date the movie instantly. Miley Cyrus appears in one scene. What’s the joke? I guess it’s meant to be funny because she’s there. Or is there irony in the way the characters lay the praise on thick by saying things like “Miley Cyrus is so amazing! Isn’t her song ‘Wrecking Ball’ timeless?”
It’s unnecessary detours like these that take precious screen time away from our heroes and grind the film’s momentum to a halt. Had the script stayed focused a bit more on its central characters, I would have found myself caring if Ethan gets the girl or if Isaac learns to be a responsible father or if Chris becomes less of an egotistical jerk.
But perhaps I’m being a bit of a Scrooge. People don’t go to a film like The Night Before looking for well-developed characters or a polished script. They go to laugh. And when Christmas brings us such lumps of coal as Jingle All the Way, Deck the Halls, and Christmas with the Kranks, we can be thankful that The Night Before is as funny and warmhearted as it is. After all, isn’t being thankful what the holidays are all about?