THE NIGHT BEFORE. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, Anthony Mackie, Jillian Bell. Directed by Jonathan Levine. 101 minutes. MA15+ (Strong drug use, nudity, sex scene and coarse language).
‘The Night Before’ is ostensibly a Christmas film – three lifelong friends meet up on Christmas Eve for their final, annual bar crawl through New York City. Underneath the red and green wrapping paper, the film is the latest bawdy comedy from Seth Rogen and Co. (see ‘Bad Neighbours’ or ‘This is the End’), which usually boast big laughs anchored to surprising emotional depth, washed down with plenty of juvenile material. This is by no means the best film in their growing portfolio, but it does the trick for those in need of some Christmas cheer amidst the chaos that often arises late in the year.
The unmistakable voice of comedian Tracy Morgan opens the film with narration in verse, aping classic Yuletide poetry to hilariously rhyme ‘one’ with ‘orphan’. It’s dour material, but played for laughs. He tells the audience about Ethan, a young man who lost both his parents in an accident close to Christmas. Ever since, Ethan and his two friends, Chris and Isaac, have spent Christmas Eve together in NYC, fulfilling their own, booze-fuelled traditions and searching for the hallowed ‘Nutcracker Ball’, a legendary and invite only party hosted in a secret location.
This particular night will be their last ever evening of debauchery together – Isaac is expected a baby with his wife, and Chris has become too famous to continue thanks to his football career. After unexpectedly stumbling upon (and quickly stealing) three tickets to the Nutcracker Ball, Ethan has designs to make sure they go out with a bang. So too does Isaac’s wife, who gifts her husband a box full of illicit drugs, encouraging him to party hard before their child arrives. The trio hop into Chris’ Red Bull sponsored limousine – the perks of being a social-media savvy athlete! – and head out into the night. Cinematographer Brandon Trost paints the city that never sleeps with beautifully bright and colourful, Christmas-light inspired images, and even employs spotlights to land some of the visual jokes.
What transpires in the next few hours is a glut of sticky situations and questionable decisions. Chris tries to find marijuana to bring to the party and impress his other famous friends, which brings their path across that of their old drug dealer Mr Green. Isaac descends into a demented, narcotic-mixing trip, and begins to doubt his viability as a father in his paranoia. Ethan tries to win back his ex-girlfriend Diane, whom he drove away with his commitment-phobia. As their paths converge at the fateful Ball, the three will have to come to terms with their respective issues, providing the emotional undercurrent mentioned earlier.
Christmas is used in the film as more of an enabler for the plot than any spiritual questioning. The script, turned in by a handful of writers including director Jonathan Levine, prioritises landing jokes over theology. Ethan launches a tirade about the spirit of Christmas at a couple of pub-crawling Santa Clauses, and Isaac’s Jewish faith and cluelessness about Christian traditions are highlighted for culture shock gags, but it’s never the focus of the film. Anyone easily offended by superficially Biblical jokes (such as a drug-addled Isaac striking up a conversation with a Nativity scene’s shepherd statue) may be put off by some of the humour, but for this reviewer it never crossed into the overtly offensive.
The cast is a blend of dramatic and comedic actors, and the three leads share a strong chemistry. As Ethan, Joseph Gordon-Levitt has the most heavy lifting to do, dealing with potentially losing his friends to their success on top of his parents’ deaths. His desire to drown his sorrows in Christmas fun is always tinted with sadness, and his romance with Lizzy Caplan (playing Diane) is sweet. Seth Rogen gets the most satisfying resolution, proving that a little honesty can sometimes strengthen relationships, and his physical comedy is the best it’s ever been. Anthony Mackie’s Chris has a conclusion that’s a little too neat, but his ongoing addiction to online interaction with fans proves to be the source of a few funny moments. A couple of celebrity cameos, playing on their public personas to humorous effect, provide the almost requisite finishing touch expected of these lewd comedies today.
It’s perhaps too inconsistent to become a Christmas classic, but fans of the comedic talent involved will be more than happy to receive this under the tree this season.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out December 3.