This is the tale of three friends who met up every Christmas Eve to party and forget their cares for the festive season. It was a tradition with them that had started when one of their number, Ethan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), had a terrible time one December as his parents were killed on the road by a drunk driver, so the other two, Isaac (Seth Rogen) and Chris (Anthony Mackie) did their darnedest to cheer him up every time that end of year celebration would come around. But now they had reached their thirties and life was beginning to look as if responsibilities were pressing down on them; Isaac's wife Betsy (Jillian Bell) was about to have a baby, Chris's sporting career was at its apex, and Ethan... was looking forward to a legendary party.
It did not take long for Hollywood to cotton on to the fact that Christmas movies can be very big business, for even the worst of them have a habit of coming back up, like food poisoning from an undercooked turkey, in the television schedules or on the streaming service of your choice, pretty much demanding that you watch at least a percentage of them at some point in your life. Testament to that were the masses of seasonal television movies, the lowest form of the Christmas movie, that littered the small screen, nobody's favourite but nevertheless hanging around like a barely tolerated house guest, though with the proper films you would be guaranteed a famous face or three that you would recognise.
The cynicism these efforts were steeped in undercut whatever festive cheer might be a by-product of the experience of seeing them, just put your star in a harassed family situation at the most wonderful time of the year and supposedly that was enough to appeal to your target audience: the people in charge of sticking them on TV channels and internet platforms from now to Kingdom Come. Sit back and watch those royalties pour in from even the least loved of Christmas productions, studio bosses, who cares that they soured the genre for generations to come, aside from those who were determined to enjoy a movie because it was set at that time? Which was why The Night Before looked so resistible.
Take a bunch of hip Hollywood actors and comedy merchants and watch them put their own spin on the celebrations, in an improvised work no less, and it sounded like a recipe for expecting the worst. Indeed, there were plenty who could not perceive anything amusing about this whatsoever, bringing out a nasty whiff of anti-Semitism when the jokes were coming from many Jewish performers and writers who were regarded as criticising or at least insulting the Christian festival. Or pagan festival, if you wanted to go that far back, though few were worried about insulting them. But if you could get over that, and let’s hope you could, this was actually very funny indeed in places, as it took an outsider's point of view to skewer the most ridiculous elements of the occasion, and Rogen especially was frequently hilarious in his character's attempts to have one final fling with his mates before settling into parenthood.
Fair enough, a bunch of manchildren who really should know better at their age was far from an original concept, notably from the talents making this, but given the final scenes saw the trio acknowledging that it was their stage to stop messing about and start investing in their existences properly, we could appreciate that we were up to that point worth laughing at as well as with. When Isaac is gifted a box of drugs by Betsy, it was the cue for him to behave in a tripped out fashion, again nothing groundbreaking, but you could defy anyone who thought they had a good sense of humour not to laugh at the scene where he’s getting explicit texts. The other two stars had their moments, as Gordon-Levitt got to play the man pining after the one that got away (Lizzy Caplan) who maybe feels the same way and Mackie had fun with chasing after Ilana Glazer, the "Grinch" who insists on stealing his weed, but while there was a happy ending, there was a neat subversion of the clichés: the marriage proposal in front of the crowd doesn't go to plan, there was no baby Jesus coincidence giving birth sequence, and so on. Relentlessly daft but goodnatured with it, The Night Before was an unexpectedly Christmassy bit of fun. Music by Marco Beltrami and Miles Hankins.