Seth Rogen and his writing partner, Evan Goldberg, have had such a great track record with raunchy comedy movies that by now, it seems difficult to know where to go next. In many ways, 2013’s “This is the End,” in which Rogen and his frequent costars like Jonah Hill played fictionalized versions of themselves during the apocalypse, was the gloriously over-the-top culmination of Rogen’s steady growth to comedic fame. Viewers watched Jonah Hill get raped by a “Rosemary’s Baby”-esque demon, and shortly after, the massive crimson penis of a CGI-rendered Satan got sliced in half by a beam transporting Rogen to Heaven. Where do you go from there?
Judging by his acclaimed work in “Steve Jobs,” Rogen is following in Hill’s footsteps and moving into more dramatic roles. In their new film “The Night Before,” though, Rogen and Goldberg thankfully show that they still have an abundance of heart to lend to raunchy comedies, even if their well of gut-busting jokes isn’t as deep as it used to be.
Primarily scripted by Goldberg and director Jonathan Levine, who worked with Rogen and Joseph Gordon-Levitt in “50/50,” “The Night Before” tells the story of three best friends who have celebrated Christmas together every year since Ethan’s (Gordon-Levitt, “The Walk”) parents died. This year, Ethan finds tickets to the legendary Nutcracker Ball, a mysterious Christmas party the friends have been seeking for years, and the film takes place over the course of one night as they try to find the party.
All three leads are given their own individual character arcs. Ethan pines after his ex-girlfriend Diana (Lizzy Caplan, “The Interview”), who broke up with him because he refused to commit and meet her parents. Isaac (Rogen), whose wife (Jillian Bell, “22 Jump Street”) is expecting a child, struggles to cope with his impending fatherhood. Chris (Anthony Mackie, “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”), a steroid-using football player, enjoys his newfound fame, though Ethan secretly resents his shameless self-promotion.
Toward the end of the film, Ethan becomes furious that his friends have split up to selfishly deal with their own problems and toss aside their Christmas-fueled camaraderie. Isaac looks for Sarah (Mindy Kaling, “The Mindy Project”), who has the phone where Isaac recorded his deepest fatherly insecurities while under the influence. Chris searches for a crazed fan who stole from him. Ethan’s stubborn attempts to secure the bond that the three friends have had since high school is a poignant character motivation, especially considering Ethan’s dissatisfaction with his professional and romantic life. Like Levine’s “50/50,” and like Rogen and Goldberg’s other films, “The Night Before” locates its heart in lasting male friendships, and the threat of those friendships disintegrating provides the conflict for the movie.
However, “The Night Before” struggles a bit because of that same insistence on splitting up the friends. The screenwriters’ dedication to giving them individual arcs necessitates hitting a number of required beats in each character’s progression. None of these arcs are particularly novel; Ethan’s struggle to grow up and commit and Isaac’s qualms about fatherhood are both characteristic of practically every Rogen character since “Knocked Up.” One can’t help but imagine an alternate version of the movie in which simplistic character motives are thrown out in favor of a simple scavenger hunt-style search for the Nutcracker Ball.
The movie is low on the huge belly laughs that filled movies like “This is the End” and “Neighbors.” Still, it’s consistently giggle-worthy, especially thanks to countless funny supporting roles, from comedians like Caplan, Kaling and Ilana Glazer (“Broad City”) to surprising standouts Michael Shannon (“Man of Steel”) and Miley Cyrus. Movies like this can often feel lazy, like they’re just an excuse for a bunch of comedian friends to hang out — but when the friends are this funny, it’s hard to protest.
Aside from heart, what keeps the comparatively low laugh caliber from being distracting is the movie’s wicked fast pace. Comedies don’t get a lot of praise for their structure and pacing, but “The Night Before” is plotted ruthlessly. Ethan, Isaac and Chris’s arcs are woven together well, and small lines from early on pay off with big punchlines later in the movie (especially with a particular character nicknamed the “Messiah”). The three main appearances of Mr. Green (Shannon) especially showcase this eye for structure. He evolves from a creepy drug dealer in a conversation with Chris to an agent of hallucination for Isaac, ending as a surprising source of insight for Ethan. There’s a relentless momentum to the film as it builds towards its inevitable climax at the Nutcracker Ball, and viewers remain engaged throughout.
“The Night Before” isn’t a flawless comedy film, and it never really shocks or challenges audience perceptions of what a Seth Rogen movie can be. Still, not every comedy needs to feature satanic nudity and apocalyptic drug trips. Sometimes, Joseph Gordon-Levitt singing “Wrecking Ball” with Miley Cyrus is enough.