Christmas comes but once a year. Families gather, forget their petty squabbles (or pretend to) and exchange gifts. No two families celebrate the same way. Some go to midnight Mass, some open presents on Christmas Eve, some wait until the correct day. The three childhood friends in The Night Before have a Christmas tradition of their own: They get fucked up, fuck shit up and sing "Christmas in Hollis" at a karaoke bar.
The film opens with a prologue delivered in Christmas fable prose by Tracy Morgan—the first of many celebrity cameos and small roles. Ethan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, sporting lengthy 3rd Rock From the Sun locks in the flashbacks) lost his parents at Christmastime in 2001. To cheer him up, his friends Isaac and Chris (Seth Rogen and Anthony Mackie) took him to bar. And so a tradition was born. Fast-forward to 2015: Isaac is about to become a father, Chris is an NFL star, and the crew is celebrating their last depraved Christmas together. This time, they've got tickets to the wildest Christmas bash in New York City, the Nutcracka Ball.
That setup sounds corny as hell, but director Jonathan Levine and the talented cast squeeze laughs and genuine pathos out of it. The Night Before functions as a shit-faced, drugged-up update of A Christmas Carol, with the friends' old dealer from high school—the eccentric Mr. Green (a scene-stealing Michael Shannon)—playing the ghost of Christmases present, future and past. Ethan, Isaac and Chris are all lying to themselves in some way. True to the source, they do find some kind of enlightenment—however much can be found while mixing cocaine and shrooms, fucking a Grinch in a bar restroom, and being beaten up by two Santas on a snowy street corner.
The Night Before is not only profane, it's unfocused. It feels like one of the longest 101-minute films ever made as it tries to wrap up every storyline. But it also manages to tap into the spirit of the season, essentially a hokey Christmas movie masquerading as a dudebro comedy. None of these childhood friends is happy or has his shit together, but they do have each other. And isn't that what Christmas is all about?
Critic's Grade: B+
see it: The Night Before is rated R. It opens Friday at most Portland-area theaters.