In many ways, “The Night Before” is your typical coming-of-age comedy, even if the central characters are already grown up. Seth Rogen, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Anthony Mackie portray three best friends in Manhattan seeking the “white wale” of Christmas Eve parties, an exclusive extravaganza called The Nutcracker Ball that will exhilarate and frustrate in equal measure, because that’s what wild parties do.
Rogen is Isaac, a husband, former pothead, and soon-to-be father who’s quietly freaking out about it, Mackie is Chris Roberts, a famous second-string for the Giants and loving it, and Gordon-Levitt is Ethan, a lonesome man-child who lost his parents to a car accident in 2001 and recently lost a girlfriend to his own fear of commitment, go figure. The latter subplot, a romantic melee, is an often sweet detour from the drug-addled shenanigans that accompany Rogen and the celebrity drama that accompanies Mackie. Ethan’s buddies have made a tradition of taking him out on the town every Christmas since his folks died, with this being the purported last night of their long-standing custom, what with a child and further complications of life sure to come.
“It’s difficult having friends when you get older,” Isaac opines on a bench when the ruckus has passed, a statement which encapsulates a surprising sadness at the heart of “The Night Before,” a film at once a celebration of friendship and a vigil for the childish fun of our youth, when having friends was easy. That sadness makes for a tonally uneven viewing experience, but it also deepens the sense of bonding and camaraderie between these variable gents, knowing this might be the last time they party hard in the Big Apple. The uneven tone could be the result of marrying Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s frat comedy sensibilities with the sobering hand of director Jonathan Levine, a filmmaker known for the previous Rogen/Levitt pairing “50/50,” a decidedly more dramatic affair about a man fighting cancer.
Don’t get me wrong, “The Night Before” is funny, especially any time Rogen is high (which is pretty much the entire movie) or any time they encounter a bizarro stranger on the streets of New York, which is every other scene, providing for the awesome cameos we’ve come to expect in a Seth Rogen vehicle. As for the ladies, Mindy Kaling is underused as a snarky friend, clubgoer, and lover of all things Miley Cyrus, and Lizzy Caplan is that aforementioned girlfriend who got away, a woman we’re told is amazing and never really find out how or why. Jillian Bell is stuck playing the straight arrow for once, home bound with child as Isaac’s other half, a wife so cool she gives her doting husband a box of assorted drugs, a veritable blast from the past to send him to the moon on this special night. But it’s Michael Shannon who steals the show as the all-knowing Mr. Green, a philosophical pot dealer with words of wisdom and bud of the badass variety. He pops up with sage advice and herbal vice when they need it, Shannon’s stoic intensity rendering each moment hilariously uncomfortable.
Levine’s awkward direction prevents “The Night Before” from truly connecting with either the heart or that hankering for some fist-bumping action, but the sheer joy of watching these dudes belt karaoke, battle at Goldeneye, and banter through the city makes up for it. It’s hard not to smile as they march in search of a good time and a good fix for their emotional woes, leaving a wake of comedic destruction behind them and a potentially starry future ahead of them.