22 November 2015 | dave-mcclain
"The Night Before" seems to mimic a lot of holiday movies that came before, but it's still pretty funny.
Let me tell you about one of the funniest Christmas movies of all time. Friends who have drifted apart get back together for a Christmas Eve quest in New York City. The night turns into a wild, drug-fueled adventure which includes hallucinations, a Santa Claus who's under the influence, an ill-timed encounter at a midnight mass and a major plot point involving a cameo by a very famous celebrity. There are jokes about sexuality, male body parts, sexting, and a baby acting like an adult, as well as friendships between Christians and Jews and the clash of cultures between their religions during the holiday season. Meanwhile, there are subplots concerning one of the friends freaking out about becoming a father, one friend regretting that he let his ex-girlfriend get away and conflicts between the guys about the state of their friendship, their growing differences (stemming from one of them having gotten wealthy), anxiety about what the future holds for them and a character with supernatural powers trying to help heal the rift between the friends. The movie that I just described is 2011's "A Very Harold and Kumar Christmas". And everything listed above also applies to 2015's "The Night Before" (R, 1:41). But don't get the idea that just because one seems to repeat so much from the other that these movies can't both be funny.
In the raunchy holiday comedy "The Night Before", old friends whose lives are moving in different directions get together for one last Christmas Eve celebration with just the three of them. Ethan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a struggling musician who hasn't done much with his life and, at 33, finds himself making a few dollars by playing an elf at a hotel Christmas party. He's also lonely, having recently broken up with his girlfriend, Diana (Lizzy Caplan). Isaac (Seth Rogen) is Ethan's proudly Jewish friend, who is newly married to Betsy (Jillian Bell) – and they're about to have their first child. Chris (Anthony Mackie) is a 6-year NFL veteran who's finally coming into his own and having his first great season. Chris owes his newfound prowess on the football field to steroids, but he's unashamed and is thoroughly enjoying his enhanced fame. All three men have issues, but they've always been there for each other.
Ethan lost both his parents in a car crash shortly before Christmas 2001, leading Isaac and Chris to cheer him up by beginning what became a tradition of enjoying a night on the town each Christmas Eve. Every December 24th, they stop by the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree, visit FAO Schwartz (to dance on the big keyboard from the movie "Big"), eat Chinese food and go to their favorite bar to do karaoke and drink. They have fun, but one Christmas Eve tradition has eluded them all these years – finding and attending NYC's fabled underground party, The Nutcracker Ball. But this year is different. While on elf coat check duty, Ethan lifted three invitations from a snooty rich guy's coat, and is beyond excited that he and his two best buds will cap off their last Christmas Eve together at the city's most exclusive party.
It becomes clear as these three best friends go through their annual routine that this year it will be anything but. In preparation for the Nutcracker Ball (and to impress his team's quarterback), Chris calls the guys' old high school drug dealer, Mr. Green (Michael Shannon), so he can buy some weed. Unfortunately for Chris, his party preparations are frustrated by a strange girl (Ilana Glazer) whom he keeps running into. This isn't a problem for Isaac, who has gotten a "head" start thanks to a box of assorted drugs that his wife gave him as an early Christmas present, leading to all sorts of altered states for him over the course of the night. Ethan keeps running into his ex and her best friend (Mindy Kaling). In the midst of all this (besides all the parallels to "A Very Harold and Kumar Christmas"), there are moments in this movie which pay homage to Christmas classics as varied as "A Christmas Carol", "It's a Wonderful Life", "How the Grinch Stole Christmas", "Home Alone" and "Die Hard" (among others).
"The Night Before" is better than I expected, but not as good as the other holiday movies it references. Full disclosure – I'm not a Seth Rogen fan and don't find him funny – usually. However, I'm careful to keep an open mind with all movies, and I admit that Rogen was very good in this one. Actually, the entire movie was well cast with actors who are enjoyable to watch. Some of the jokes and sight gags seemed kind of random, but more hit their marks than missed, and the movie has a strong narrative thread on which to hang them. Even with its many echoes of Christmas films past, this movie works pretty well on its own terms. I still think that the Harold and Kumar movie did better at what this one tries to do, but "The Night Before" is better than most Christmas comedies. "B+"