Friendships perk up ‘The Night Before’

From left, Seth Rogen, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Anthony Mackie play friends enjoying holidays together in “The Night Before.” (Courtesy Sony Pictures)

The naughty holiday comedy is like the Christmas horror/slasher movie: Both genres touch on “naughty” to give “nice” some perspective. Although there’s nothing new in “The Night Before,” and other similar seasonal naughty comedies have been funnier, it has a genuine heart.

In 2001, just before Christmas, Ethan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) lost his parents in a drunk driving accident. His two best friends, Isaac (Seth Rogen) and Chris (Anthony Mackie), show up on Christmas Eve to cheer him up with a little misbehaving and a little friendship.

The event became a tradition, evolving into a search for the ultimate Christmas party.

But this year, the friends agree the outing will be the final one. Isaac’s wife (Jillian Bell) is about to have a baby and Chris’ football career has made him into a recognizable celebrity. They hope to go out with a bang.

The characters have fairly simple arcs: Isaac isn’t sure he’s ready for fatherhood, Ethan pines over a lost love he wasn’t ready to commit to, and Chris’ sudden fame seems to have gone to his head.

When “The Night Before” builds jokes out of these arcs, the humor rarely flies: for example, as Isaac repeatedly dips into a box of drugs (with the usual “freakout” moments), and when Chris provides transportation in a limo emblazoned with a “Red Bull” logo. Even if they succeed in the naughty department, the jokes aren’t terribly surprising.

This movie’s closest cousin, “A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas,” cleverly balanced humorous contradictions, pitting zaniness against stability, dreams against reality. “The Night Before,” cowritten and directed by Jonathan Levine, simply follows a straight line.

Yet “The Night Before” has an appealing organic feel between the leads; they’re like three corners of a triangle, complementing and completing one another. (It helps that Rogen and Gordon-Levitt already bonded in Levine’s terrific “50/50.”) No matter what happens, they love each other and they love Christmas.

A bonus: Michael Shannon as Mr. Green, a helpful drug dealer who arrives by way of Dickens and Capra. Except for his appearance in a weird epilogue, he wraps up “The Night Before” as a satisfying stocking stuffer.

The Night Before
Two and a half stars
Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, Anthony Mackie, Jillian Bell
Written by Jonathan Levine, Kyle Hunter, Ariel Shaffir, Evan Goldberg
Directed by Jonathan Levine
Rated R
Running time 1 hour, 41 minutes

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