There’s a Great Holiday Comedy Buried Inside the Messy ‘Night Before’

Sometimes a movie’s trailers tell you less about what a movie is than what its studio wants it to be. Take, as the most recent example, Jonathan Levine’s The Night Before, which comes advertised as a rollicking, drug-fueled, cheerfully vulgar Seth Rogen comedy, with Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Anthony Mackie playing sidekicks to Rogen and his box full of Christmas Eve drugs. What a surprise, then, to discover the film gives equal screen time to JGL and his mopey, tension-free life crisis, while also dishing out a pressures-of-fame subplot (and, I shit you not, steroid crisis) to Mackie’s pro football player character. And hey, this kind of thing happens all the time in the telephone game of film promotion; trouble is, the people who made the trailers for The Night Before seem to have a better idea of what it should be than the people who made the movie.

The story — as narrated by Santa Claus (Tracy Morgan, nice touch) — concerns a 14-year tradition of Christmas Eve revelry between best pals Ethan (Gordon-Levitt), Isaac (Rogen), and Chris (Mackie). It started when Ethan’s parents died right before the holiday, but now it’s apparently coming to an end; Isaac and wife Betsy (Jillian Bell, so great in 22 Jump Street) are expecting their first child, Chris is getting too busy/famous, and Ethan… well, Ethan’s not doing much of anything. But armed with a box of illegal substances and invites to the elusive “Nutcracker Ball” blowout, they decide to have one last, big Christmas Eve together.

Seth Rogen in "The Night Before"

So far, so good. The funniest scenes in The Night Before, as you’ve guessed from that trailer, find a sweaty, unstable, gloriously out-of-his-mind Rogen trying to keep his cool at the evening’s various bars, parties, and (most memorably) at midnight mass. This could easily play as one-note schtick, but Rogen keeps finding the subtle variations between the euphoria and paranoia of the various substances, and the right comic groove for each. It’s some of the funniest work he’s done in a movie, and by the time James Franco makes his obligatory appearance, Isaac has become so down-for-whatever, the picture cleverly takes their regular bromance up an entertaining notch.

The rest of the laughs come courtesy of Michael Shannon, in an unbilled appearance as “Mr. Green,” their high school weed dealer. Shannon does what he does best: he freaks everybody out (“I’ve been told my quiet intensity has that effect on people”), playing this weirdo without so much as a wink, and injecting a welcome sense of unpredictability into the proceedings.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Anthony Mackie, and Seth Rogen in "The Night Before"

And boy, are they needed. The Christmas comedy is a tricky bit of business, perching as it must between honest laughs — and, in the case of the R-rated Christmas comedy, a fair amount of incongruousness — and earned pathos, going for warmth without getting sticky. (Even Bad Santa ends up more nice than naughty.) That Levine can’t pull it off is a surprise; after all, he juggled laughs and tears adroitly in the previous Rogen/Gordon-Levitt vehicle 50/50.

But the problem isn’t that The Night Before gets predictably syrupy about Christmas. It’s that the relationships and conflicts at its center are so oddly unengaging. Gordon-Levitt’s Ethan is still pining for his lost girlfriend Diana (Lizzy Caplan, wasted), a relationship that ended because he was afraid of commitment and wouldn’t meet her parents. This is an actual plot point in a movie, in the year 2015. He makes a desperate play to get her back, to which she responds, sensibly, “I’m not your answer right now,” and begs him not “to hang on to me like I’m your lifeline.” One day, a movie will be brave and realistic enough to end the relationship there; this, as you can probably guess, is not that movie.

Mackie, meanwhile, is a thoroughly engaging screen presence, and gets a couple of good scenes with Broad City’s Ilana Glazer, but his steroid thing is utterly bewildering — a plot thread clumsily introduced, referenced once, and then clumsily dismissed. It’s a dramatic element tacked on to a movie that can’t support it, which is the case with most of what doesn’t work in The Night Before. The ultimate disappointment of the picture is an inexplicable bummer — after all, they had a one-crazy-night Christmas-Eve stoner movie right there. And then they loaded it down with all this other junk, like a Christmas dinner where the plates have less turkey and stuffing for the sake of broccoli casserole and fruitcake.

The Night Before is out now.