It’s Christmas time, and many of you might be waking up to some presents from Santa. Some of them might be exactly what you are wanting, others might be a lump of coal, while others—like The Night Before—might be a pleasant surprise wrapped up in a not-so-fitting package. While it overstays its welcome and gets muddled down in its complexity, The Night Before ultimately ends up being a coming-of-age tale that has humor, maturity, and a sense of heartwarming in this holiday season.
When you put Seth Rogen, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Anthony Mackie into a film that is a magical—er, drug-filled—odyssey to get to a massively secret Christmas party, you would hardly expect there would be any sort of depth to their characters—but there is. Rogen plays Isaac, a soon-to-be father struggling to maintain a calmness while his wife freaks out, despite himself being completely terrified; JGL is Ethan, a 30-something who can’t commit or grow up, following the death of his parents a decade earlier; and Mackie plays Chris, a football star who desperately wants to be famous and talented but has to rely on steroids.
Over the course of the movie—and just about every drug under the sun—the trio treks their way on their final annual Christmas extravaganza (started after Ethan’s parents died so he would not have to be alone) and there are some solid laughs throughout, but nothing truly memorable to write home about. The one standout scene has Isaac, a Jew, high on cocaine, mushrooms, and weed attending a midnight mass with his fiancé—you can probably figure out how well that goes.
So while these characters are remarkably complex for this type of movie—which really helps set it apart—there comes a time near the end when it can’t quite decide if it wants to end on a heartwarming note, or a comedic one. It picks the wrong option, in my opinion, which makes it feel even more stretched out as it tries to meet the two-hour mark.
The trio works solidly together with Rogen pretty much having to act inebriated most of the movie, JGL acting a little pitiful, and Mackie being super-cocky. They play off of each other with ease and likability, though I would argue that Mackie’s character could have been rewritten as something a little more “realistic” as his athlete/celebrity status feels markedly less important and believable than Rogen’s and JGL’s problems. Rogen and JGL have to grow up and accept life, Mackie just has to stop using steroids.
The Night Before also boasts a fun part from Michael Shannon as the mysterious drug-dealer, Mr. Green, who seems more like a character out of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” Mindy Kaling also appears, though she could have been used more, and Lizzy Caplan as Ethan’s ex-girlfriend he is trying to win back. They are an odd cast—except maybe for Kaling—but they work out well.
One would never expect a drug-induced Christmas story would ever have as much heart as The Night Before but somehow it comes out as a sort of “Christmas Miracle.” Though it is far from perfect, those who are willing to buy into it are bound to find a funny, heartwarming, and decently complex present. It just goes to show that you should never judge a present by its wrapping—though that’s coming from someone who wraps presents in a grocery bag.