Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, Anthony Mackie, Jillian Bell, Lizzy Kaplan, Michael Shannon, Mindy Sterling
Rated R for Drug Use and Language Throughout, Some Strong Sexual Content and Graphic Nudity
When I first saw the ads for this movie, I winced. "God, another Seth Rogen 'comedy.'" Sometimes being a film critic rules, but when I have to sit and watch him do riffs on things that aren't even jokes, it's a real trial. So to my surprise I found that not only is "The Night Before" not 90 minutes of Rogen shooting his mouth off and smoking weed, I actually enjoyed it.
"The Night Before" is not a perfect movie by any means, but it is funny and has a sweet side. As one might expect, it's raunchy and crude, and will have little appeal for anyone who isn't in their 20's or 30's. It's not just because of the crassness of the humor, but it's the way in which these characters interact with each other. Director Jonathan Levine has a keen eye for how Millenials interact with each other, and I could see myself and my friends in these types of situations. It's far more realistic than "What If?"
Ethan (Gordon-Levitt) lost his parents around Christmastime 2001. To help him out of his funk, his two buddies Isaac (Rogen) and Chris (Mackie) took him out partying, and it has become a regular tradition ever since. But now that they've gotten older, they've decided to end the annual night of booze and drugs. After all, Isaac is married to a heavily pregnant wife and Chris is a major NFL star. Ethan, on the other hand, doesn't know what to do with himself, and his friends are determined to help him get his life together. But before that can happen, they have to survive the night. Ethan has scored some tickets to a legendary party (read: stolen) that they've been desperate to go to for years, and his ex, Diana (Caplan) is going to be there too. The trip, as is commonly said, is not without its detours.
Rogen used to be hilarious, but then he started writing and directing his own material, and he hasn't figured out how to successfully make someone laugh on his own. Humor is subjective, but it's hard to imagine anyone finding the rhyme-off in "Neighbors" or the unending scene where he and James Franco confess their bro-love for each other in "The Interview" to be amusing. Rogen does a lot of improvising, but his riffs don't go anywhere and aren't about anything that's actually funny. I mean, how can you make a couple arguing about how to talk to a bunch of frat boys funny? Especially if you're just repeating yourself.
That said, when his humor is effectively channeled, he can be very funny. Like many of his other movies, "The Night Before" is heavily improvised, but the humor is focused by director Jonathan Levine. With one exception (the scene at the karaoke bar) the jokes and comic bits don't drag on endlessly, and none of the cast repeats themselves in an attempt to milk a joke for more humor than it's worth. The film moves along at a nice pace, and none of the jokes are belabored. What's more, they're actually funny.
On the acting front, however, Rogen kind of blends into the background. Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Anthony Mackie score more and bigger laughs because they can actually act and don't do the same thing in every movie. They also understand the concept of comic timing, and certainly seem to be enjoying themselves. Lizzy Caplan plays the obligatory love interest, and it's free from the sarcasm and cynicism that pervades a lot of her roles. Caplan can actually act, and the result is a romance that feels real. Michael Shannon appears as a weirdo drug dealer who shows up at the right time and place in every situation.
One of the reasons the film works is because the three stars have chemistry. They're believable as friends and play off each other well...unlike some of the people Rogen has worked with. I'm sorry, but leave your "Freaks & Geeks" buddies alone, Seth. You and Franco together is about as appealing as being scratched by a mangy cat.
"The Night Before" is not going to become a Christmas classic, and it's nowhere near as successful as blending the sweet and the hilarious as "Christmas Vacation." But it is sweet and funny and has an appropriate message about remembering what's really important. Can't ask for much more.