In his review of 1990s “Days Of Thunder,” critic Roger Ebert boiled down the “Tom Cruise Picture” to a concise formula. The talented but cocky youngster who fails, the mentor and wiser love interest who help him grow and the victorious finale where a matured man emerges. Sometimes it worked wonders (“Jerry MaGuire”), sometimes not so much (“Cocktail”).
I say all this to say, Seth Rogen has pretty much shoehorned this process into his last decade of raunchy man-child comedies. For Rogen and company (James Franco, Jonah Hill, Jason Segel), man-child is a lovable loser who’s failed since day one. Through circumstance and a wiser love interest who help him grow, the victorious finale reveals a (slightly) matured man-child. Sometimes it works wonders (“Neighbors”), sometimes not really (“The Interview”). Unfortunately, “The Night Before” joins the latter category as a surprisingly laughless Christmas comedy.
Narrated by Tracy Morgan in rare form, “Night” tells the story of three friends: Ethan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), Isaac (Rogen) and Chris (Anthony Mackie). The pot-friendly pals have spent every Christmas Eve together since the death of Ethan’s parents, but time has finally caught up with them. Isaac has a wife (Jillian Bell) and a baby on the way. Chris is an NFL celebrity in the midst of a career year. Ethan is a struggling 30-something with an ex-girlfriend (Lizzy Caplan) and no future prospects. But things are looking up, for a Christmas miracle has bestowed Ethan with three tickets to the elusive “Nutcracka Ball” — it’s pretty much a Gatsby party with reindeer. What’s not to love?
It turns out, the answer is a lot. I had high hopes going into “The Night Before,” based on its talented cast and hilarious trailer. But the film quickly commits the cardinal sin of comedy: showing all the best bits in the preview. Jamming to Kanye West’s “Runaway” on a giant keyboard, the on-point Christmas sweaters and Rogen’s showstopping debacle at a Catholic Mass all deliver big belly laughs, but laughs that would’ve hit harder had we not already seen them. Outside of these highlights and a scene-stealing Michael Shannon, the film sinks into awkward dramedy that’s neither dramatic nor particularly funny.
Jonathan Levine, who previously directed Rogen and Gordon-Levitt in 2011’s “50/50,” manages to hide all sense of comedic cleverness. Juicy supporting players like Bell, Kaplan and Mindy Kaling aren’t given a whole lot to do besides react to the main guys, who lack in the ha-ha category themselves. Gordon-Levitt and Mackie are both solid actors, and they deliver this silly script like champs, while Rogen’s clowning manages to save a few dull moments. But even dramatic chops and charisma are unable to salvage a film that’s unsure of what it wants to be.
Even with all it’s last minute cameos and kind-hearted intentions, “The Night Before” isn’t the gift that viewers were promised. It’s like Rogen and Levine watched John Cassavetes’ “Husbands” (1970) and tried to make a raunchy comedy with the same ingredients. If that was in fact the case, they would’ve been better off wearing their less silly influence on their sleeve. Until then, I eagerly await “Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising.”
Danilo Castro is a resident of Oro Valley and writer for the Film Noir Archive blog at