Given that the “Bro Trip” adventure comedy reached its saturation point somewhere around the second Hangover (not to be confused with its zenith, the Home Alone 2: Lost in New York), each new entry runs the risk of being the straw on the already overburdened camel’s back. Seth Rogen, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Anthony Mackie need not worry:The Night Before isn’t that straw. It’s a clever, albeit predictable, comedy that, despite a James Franco appearance nobody asked Santa for, is a worthy entrant into its genre’s oeuvre.
As far as inventiveness goes, The Night Before is purely a paint-by-numbers job: insert three likable actors, one silly quest, and a contrived battle for aging men’s unalienable right to chill, and — voila — you earned a solid month of weekend box office takes. But don’t hold its formulaic premise — three bros celebrating one final Christmas Eve rager, a 15-year tradition slowly being aged out — against it.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt, as that earnestly dapper motherfucker is wont to do, is immensely likable as Ethan, the itinerant adult of the group. Orphaned just before Christmas Eve, his friends Isaac (Rogen) and Chris (Mackie) establish an adorable annual Christmas Eve tradition of getting immeasurably drunk and performing late night karaoke together. The party takes a turn for the Quixotic when the trio gets word of the Nutcracker Ball, allegedly the greatest party of all time. Unsurprisingly, our heroes try valiantly to gain entrance, with little luck.
Over the years, Isaac gets married (to a fucking fantastic Jillian Bell, currently pregnant with her and Isaac’s first child), Mackie becomes an aging NFL player clamoring for the spotlight, and Levitt, of course, is stuck in a state of arrested development. As expected, the final year of partying yields the closest the three will ever get to their grail, and as further expected, a bunch of weird shit and inexplicable celebrity cameos pop up first, and are never commented upon for their abject incongruity with anything resembling real life.
Despite its formulaic premise, the ensemble works. After years of seeing Rogen play a semi-manic foil to James Franco’s shit-eating grin, seeing him team up again with Gordon-Levitt was warm and comforting, like the Christmas sweaters donned throughout the film (or a bump of cocaine on Christmas Eve that your wife gave you, like Bell did Isaac). Alongside Mackie, the three are wholly believable as childhood friends who stuck together. It’s not hard to root for them.
The movie also treads into the new genre of enlightened male comedy being popularized by shows like Louie and Aziz Ansari’s latest, Master of None. Rather than rely solely on absurdly rising plot twists, a good chunk of the film focuses not only on Ethan’s inability to cope with the loss of his parents, but Ethan and Isaac’s inabilities to confront Chris about his steroid use, Chris’ difficulty with his role in the community as a pro athlete, and Isaac on fatherhood. While that’s often heavier and more on-the-nose than necessary, it’s always nice to see ostensibly bro comedies tread into the thoughtful and nuanced, as men in the real world can often do — despite what Hollywood might have you believe.
Pivotal to any movie such as these, the celebrity cameos are good. Given that the genre is oversaturated at this point, the cameos and guest stars are solid. Lizzy Caplan is a vision as Ethan’s ex-girlfriend Diana, while Mindy Kaling plays the role of Mindy Kaling to perfection as Diana’s best friend Sarah. Ilana Glazer is even better than you’d expect her to be, thought at this point, one should know that every time we see Glazer, she’ll be better than we expect, so in some ways she was exactly as expected; suffice to say, her bathroom stall scene with Mackie will be seared onto many a temporal lobe this holiday scene. As expected, James Franco is once again the worst thing to happen to Seth Rogen, though with blessedly little screen time for once. At this point, seeing Franco around Rogen is like watching an after school special; we can only hope that Franco’s limited screen time in The Night Before means Rogen has finally reached the “lesson” part of his special.
Though straightforward and simple, The Night Before is a solid B+ movie, and that’s okay! In a field of ambitious tentpoles and indie darlings, with little room for anything in between, comfortable, safe comedies have all but gone out the window, in favor of lead-driven histrionics and inexplicable capers. Despite a plethora of unresolved story threads, The Night Before succeeds in being a mature, likeable version of an enjoyable genre. It goes just far enough, both on the caper front and the “Only the person holding the feelings stick may speak” front, without becoming schmaltzy. Put it this way: watching this movie with your relatives will be the one thing your family won’t argue about beforehand, and get passive-aggressive about until Christmas. There’s a real Christmas miracle.
The Night Before will be released on November 20th
Photos by Columbia Pictures