Editor’s Note: The Night Before opens in wide theatrical release today, November 20, 2015.
For better or for worse, Seth Rogen is here to stay. He may not be as ubiquitous as his longtime friend and frequent collaborator, James Franco, but he’s close. We only have ourselves to blame. In comedy after comedy, Rogen has essayed one weed-obsessed, clueless man-child after another and until moviegoers declaim with one voice, “No more!,” Rogen will continue to play weed-obsessed, man-children ad infinitum and ad nauseam. His latest starring role, The Night Before, a surprisingly tame, R-rated, stoner-themed Christmas comedy – released a week before Thanksgiving because celebrating Christmas early has become a American tradition – slides right into the ever-expanding Rogen canon. As short on laughs as Neighbors, probably the high-water mark in Rogen’s oeuvre, was long, The Night Before fails repeatedly to meet the most basic rules of bro-dude (or dude-bro) comedy: make us care, even if only superficially, about the characters before, during, and after you put them through the obligatory, ritualistic series of wince-inducing humiliations that will ultimately make them better people (or not).
For better or for worse, Seth Rogen is here to stay. He may not be as ubiquitous as his longtime friend and frequent collaborator, James Franco, but he’s close. We only have ourselves to blame.
The Night Before plays its paltry hand up front, pulling and teasing heartstrings with its foundational tale of woe and bro-dude friendship, as Ethan, orphaned as a teen on Christmas due to a cruel twist of fate (the screenwriters’, not the car accident that dispatches his parents offscreen), cheers right up when his two best friends, Isaac (Seth Rogen), and Chris (Anthony Mackie, just a week away from appearing in another Christmas-themed entry, the already-forgotten Love the Coopers), appear at his apartment with minor revelry and debauchery on their minds. A Christmas tradition of sorts is born that night. Fourteen years later, though, and that tradition is about to end. Ethan may be stuck in a professional rut (he temps as an elf at a corporate party) and a personal one (he lost his girlfriend due to commitment issues; his, not hers), but Isaac and Chris are in full-on adult mode, at least superficially. Isaac’s wife, Betsy (Jillian Bell), is about to introduce their first child to the world, and Chris has become famous football player with an on-point social media game, leaving Ethan on the outside looking in.
All is not lost, of course, not with one more adventure- and incident-filled night ahead of them. To celebrate his final ascendancy into responsible adulthood, Isaac brings a stash of wife-approved (and wife-gifted) drugs to their last get-together. Despite Chris’s fame and fortune, he’s still a supporting player on his team, agreeing to bring weed to a party hosted by his quarterback/personal Jesus, Tommy Owens (Aaron Hill), necessitating the first of three phone calls to their onetime friendly neighborhood drug dealer, Mr. Green (Michael Shannon, a stone-cold highlight throughout). Ethan has his sights on the mythical, invite-only Nutcracker Ball, the Christmas Eve Party to End All Christmas Eve Parties. He’s never been, but he’s heard good things about it. Along the way, Chris runs into a wallet-stealing charmer, Rebecca (Ilana Glazer, taking a break from Broad City), while Ethan runs into his ex-girlfriend, Diana (Lizzy Caplan), and her best friend, Sarah (Mindy Kaling).
For Rogen, it’s just one more day or week or month playing a minor variation on the same character he’s always played. . .
Not-quite-massive amounts of drugs are swallowed, smoked, or otherwise imbibed (mostly by Isaac), phones are mistakenly swapped (incriminating texts and/or videos are involved), and a Red Bull limo gets prime product placement. Isaac, of course, has to go through the whole freaking-out thing about becoming a father (because we’ve never seen that before), Ethan has to grow up and embrace monogamous commitment (but not before learning a lesson or two in the value or lack thereof of big romantic gestures, contrary to everything we’ve learned from Love Actually) while Chris, in probably the most ill-fitting, ill-conceived subplot, has to man-up and live a more authentic, truer-to-yourself life. He’s not gay, in case you’re wondering (that’s actually his not-so-big secret in Love the Coopers). Given the need for a throughline or narrative arc, we’re guaranteed a life lesson or lessons for the central trio, if only to affirm the primacy of male friendship and the importance of family/commitment (or something).
With the exception of one or two bits of inspired lunacy, including a balls-tripping Isaac stumbling into Midnight Mass just as Betsy and her family are about to enter the church (minor, cringe-inducing hilarity follows), and a virtual boss-on-employee act of violence (Ethan’s asked to smile), there’s little to laugh at or about in The Night Before. For Rogen, it’s just one more day or week or month playing a minor variation on the same character he’s always played, but Gordon-Levitt and Mackie have proven they have more range drama and comedy-wise many times over elsewhere, so at least there was hope, however slim and unwarranted, that their presence might elevate The Night Before from another negligible Seth Rogen effort into something watchable, if not exactly memorable, let alone destined to be a classic memorable. Anyone who thought that was wrong on all counts. There’s a lesson in there, somewhere, about benefit-of-the-doubt giving, as in don’t, not where another lazily scripted, shoddily executed Rogen vehicle is involved.
With few laughs and a stubborn refusal to tread any new ground, The Night Before is just one more Seth Rogen dudebro comedy to add to the pile.