Published Nov 19, 2015With all due respect to Elf and Bad Santa, there's an unquestionable dearth of quality Christmas comedies out there. If you need any evidence of this, just try sitting through Four Christmases, Christmas with the Kranks or Deck the Halls this holiday season when they inevitably pop up in cable rotation hell. That's why it's all the more refreshing to now have The Night Before, a raucous yuletide laugh riot that's fuelled by debauchery yet still somehow steeped in good cheer.
Ever since Ethan's (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) parents were killed by a drunk driver just before Christmas when he was in high school, he and his two childhood friends Isaac (Seth Rogen) and Chris (Anthony Mackie) have made it a point to turn Christmas Eve into a night of drunken antics and tomfoolery. An opening montage (narrated hilariously by Tracy Morgan in rhyming storybook style) takes us through the years of their tradition and the group's fruitless quest for access into the annual Nutcracka Ball, a blowout party shrouded in mystery.
With Isaac about to become a father and Chris now a famous football player, the trio have decided to end the tradition with one last hurrah. Buoyed by Ethan scoring three elusive tickets to the Nutcracka Ball and Isaac getting not only a free pass from his wife (Jillian Bell) but a collection of every drug known to man, they hit the town hard. What ensues is an episodic adventure that begins with playing Kanye West's "Runaway" on the FAO Schwarz piano made famous in Big and includes regular encounters with a mystical drug dealer (a scene-stealing Michael Shannon) whose killer weed somehow induces the past, present and future of A Christmas Carol.
The transient nature of the plot allows for a myriad of increasingly enjoyable comic set pieces and appearances from some of comedy's brightest young talents, including Nathan For You's Nathan Fielder as their Red Bull-swilling limousine driver, Broad City's Ilana Glazer as an opportunistic serial thief and the duo of Lizzy Caplan and Mindy Kaling as Ethan's former flame and her friend, respectively. Among the more memorable stops along the way are a pop in to Chris's childhood home for a game of GoldenEye that turns into an eye-opening holiday dinner and Isaac attending midnight mass while tripping balls.
Reuniting Rogen and Gordon-Levitt with 50/50 director Jonathan Levine, it's the performers that really elevate the material into a different stratosphere. Gordon-Levitt brings genuine pathos to his character and keeps their night from simply being empty shenanigans, while Rogen lends authenticity to the sweaty depravity of a drug trip gone wrong as the film's real comic centre. If Mackie perhaps strains believability as a PED-abusing athlete and his hunt to score weed for one of his teammates is the flimsiest of threads to hang a story, it's hardly enough of a weak link to spoil the fun.
The real test of the lasting merits of a Christmas comedy like this, however, is how well it will hold up on regular holiday viewings. But it's certainly easy to imagine it becoming a perennial favourite in homes once the kids have all gone to bed and the eggnog's been spiked.