As far as comedy films are concerned, The Night Before comes with more expectations than most. It feels like a return to normalcy for the Seth Rogen comedy bandwagon — think less This is the End/The Interview, and more Knocked Up/The 40-Year Old Virgin. Perhaps more importantly, it offers a much needed break from the usual Rogen/James Franco combo, with Joseph-Gordon Levitt and Anthony Mackie filling the void. Lastly, it’s a Christmas movie, which always demands the question of whether it will be a holiday classic to come back to again and again.
The Night Before is not a holiday classic, nor does it completely avoid the Rogen/Franco dynamic for those that have grown tired of it. In fact, The Night Before isn’t even as grounded as you’d expect, feeling more like a halfway point between the two aforementioned styles. And yet, despite dashing all expectations, it’s also consistently funny and enjoyable. I may not remember I watched it in a month, but it fulfilled my main comedy requirement — providing a steady stream of chuckles and a few teary-eyed belly laughs before the end.
The film tells the story of Ethan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who lost his parents in his teens and found solace around a Christmas tradition of debauchery with his friends Isaac (Seth Rogen) and Chris (Anthony Mackie). Over a decade later, Isaac is about the become a father and Chris is dealing with overwhelming fame, while Ethan is stuck in a pattern of arrested development. Regardless, the trio decide to embark on one last night before moving on with their lives.
The result is a mix of the typical “one-crazy night” plot combined with the “realizing you’re an adult now” themes we’ve come to expect from these sorts of comedies. Top it off with second shots at romance, pregnancy fear, and plenty of bro-love and you have a Rogen comedy that almost comes off like a supercut of all his previous films. The crowded plot keeps things moving and offers up enough material that the jokes never drag, but it also results in a film that feels a bit underdeveloped.
Beyond the actors clearly having a good time, the relationship between the three friends doesn’t come off as particularly genuine. Nor does the romance angle, which casts Lizzie Caplan as Ethan’s love interest and little else. She does a bang-up job, but it was clear her acting chops were being wasted on a plotline that was more to mark off checkboxes than to say anything worthwhile.
Ultimately that was my main issue with The Night Before. This comedy crew has gotten so good at this fun-bro-adventure-with-a-dash-of-emotion story that it has become completely formulaic. I’ve seen this all before and I’ve seen it done better in Rogen’s own films. When they reach the point where the characters are meant to grow up and learn, it feels more like preaching to the audience than a true moment for the characters.
Either way The Night Before is fun and funny. Go in with the right expectations and you probably won’t mind that it’s not as well-made as films like 50/50 or Knocked Up. Yes, Rogen and crew have a formula, but it’s an effective one and they still got a ton of laughs out of me.