Three friends set out on their yearly tradition to party at Christmas eve, looking for that one magical party they could never find. They all struggle with some problems in their lives, and the drugs-fueled night becomes a dream world about growing apart, finding themselves and rediscovering their friendship in true Christmas spirit.
Seth Rogen made himself the king of the stoner-comedies of this decade. It all started out for him with The Pineapple Express (2008) and ever since did his movies follow roughly the same structure. They’re usually simple stories about a sloppy drug user whose life enters some kind of crisis, but it ends well. In the last few year leading up to The Night Before (2015), the theme and the settings changed with every movie, so This Is the End (2013) was set in the apocalypse and The Interview (2014) was set in North Korea, and Rogen diversified his humor to include rough toilet jokes that involve all kinds of bodily fluids. The structure remained throughout and The Night Before (2015) follows those same lines with plenty of drugs, some blood and vomit, but with a Christmas theme in the background and set in New York city.
Our three guys start out as close friends with a yearly tradition to have the same night out, at the night before Christmas, and search for a mythical party that they once heard about, a bit like Harold and Kumar go to White Castle (2004). All three are struggling in some way. Seth Rogen is going to be a father but he isn’t sure if he’s ready for it. Anthony Mackie became a sports celebrity and loves his newfound fame just a little bit too much. And his connection with Red Bull as a sponsor is really a shameless product placement in the movie. Both guys are hence fully occupied with other things in their lives, while Joseph Gordon-Levitt is failing to grow up, loses his girl and holds on to this old tradition that really has been going on for too long, and like Simon Pegg as a drunk in The World’s End (2013), he needs it too much to the point that it is becoming unhealthy.
The Night Before goes full throttle on the visuals to generate that warm Christmas spirit. It is all surface-level stuff to speak to your memories. There is New York in the snow, evoking a hundred Christmas movies, with the city covered in seas of lights and with giant Christmas threes all around. People are dressed up as Santa Claus, and our three heroes wear warm knitted shirts. Lots of helicopter shots of the city tell us that yes, this is New York, the Big Apple, where the spirit of Christmas and the spirit of hip and happening merge in a magical vortex where anything can happen. It is like submerging yourself in a warm bath.
The Night Before is much stronger and more focused than Rogen’s last movie The Interview. That one was a jumbled mess of taped-together jokes, and floundering in a juvenile world of racial stereotypes. The Night Before has a stronger story structure and had more heart to it. What must have helped Rogen to stay focused is that he basically had the storyline of A Christmas Carol to guide him in setting up the emotional journeys of the three characters, and since that story line has been plundered so often through the decades, he can set it up as a joke and a reference. Now, the movie is still in danger of floundering over a haphazard series of scenes in the middle and end. Sometimes, jokes are made with hurried, last-minute setups, as if the actors momentarily forgot that they were about the start a joke without properly leading up to it. But it all wraps up nicely.
Does the film tastelessly use Christmas to cash in? That judgement would be a bit too harsh. The movie ends on a good note about family, vulnerability and love, and yes, it does indeed leave you with those Christmas feelings.