A Christmas comedy optimized for distracted viewing, The Night Before aims to foster a spirit of giddy anarchy in order to tie a ribbon around its shambolic script and rickety pacing. Half movie-mad homage to the ghosts of holiday films from 1985 to 1995, half abruptly earnest exploration of surrogate families and the perils of belatedly graduating into adulthood, the film adheres to the formula of the Apatow brand, but never gives us much of a reason to care about its trio of bros in crisis.
The saddest of these thirtysomethings is Ethan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who lost his parents in a drunk-driving accident as a teenager. Fourteen years of romantic and creative failures later, he’s only rescued from his past each Christmas Eve, when his two best friends abandon their lives to take him out for a wild night in New York City. In contrast to Ethan, token Jew Isaac (Seth Rogen) is terrified of his future, as the impending birth of his first child finds him in the throes of anxiety. Chris (Anthony Mackie), meanwhile, is mired in a complicated present, as a late-breaking NFL star with a major social-media presence and a dark, predictable secret.
This setup, an undeniably clever nod to the ghosts of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (all represented here by a drug dealer played by Michael Shannon, stoner kin to David Johansen’s cab driver from Scrooged), is coupled with another quest: for the group, on their final Christmas Eve debauch, to finally gain entry to the Nutcracka Ball, the city’s most exclusive holiday party. But despite their goal-oriented carousing (complete with individualized holiday sweaters), The Night Before is rooted in an antagonism that hampers its attempts to convey camaraderie. Isaac and Chris resent being pulled away from their family and careers for the sake of coddling Ethan, who cannot overcome his fears of attachment and commitment. Isaac and Ethan, at the same time, are hip to Chris’s shady behavior.
Director Jonathan Levine’s screenplay, co-written by Kyle Hunter and Ariel Shaffir, doesn’t develop these conflicts. Instead, it bluntly states them, and then asks the viewer to forget about them in the favor a string of comedic set pieces. The mild discord between the friends curdles some moments (a Kanye West cover at FAO Schwartz) and enlivens others, but the film’s three leads never quite find their roles, or much chemistry. Rogen, always best as the straight man pretending he’s a party guy, overdoes his drug-fueled odyssey, except when the movie seems to forget that he’s rolling. Gordon-Levitt brims with mopey rage until the film asks him to become a rom-com lead. Mackie, meanwhile, is hugely charismatic in a tacky, underwritten part where he’s reduced to chasing a grinch (Ilana Glazer) around the city’s streets and rooftops (while referencing, respectively, Home Alone 2 and Die Hard).
Shot with invasive close-ups and milky-white lighting that can only possibly be justified as a representation of Isaac’s fear of parenthood, The Night Before makes some strained attempts to grapple with modern romance and homosocial love, but it only seems comfortable playing off of ’90s nostalgia and more contemporary pop-culture phenomena. To Levine’s credit, these gags serve both comedic and dramatic purposes. A genuinely hilarious dick-pic exchange ushers in one of a few cute celebrity cameos, and a brief break to play the Nintendo 64 classic Goldeneye also serves as one of too-few reminders that the film’s protagonists are inextricably bound together. The Night Before is too erratic to sustain any dramatic or comedic momentum, but its highlights will still play well when AMC shows the film on a loop 10 Christmases from now. That seems to be the extent of the film’s ambitions.