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The Night Before review

The Night Before is a raunchy holiday romp without the sickly sweet filling

Crude, ridiculous, and just plain dumb fun.

At this point, irreverent holiday comedies have become their very own subset of the holiday film genre. From The Ref to Bad Santa, the offerings are as varied as they are plentiful, spanning the spectrum from dark satire to over-the-top raunchy hijinks.

The Night Before, the new comedy from Warm Bodies and 50/50 director Jonathan Levine, hails from the latter side of the genre and offers a holiday story that’s equal parts drug-addled escapade (a la The Hangover) and slapstick coming-of-age story that, like so many other examples of the genre, also manages to be fairly endearing amid all the toilet humor and racy gags.

Co-written and directed by Levine, The Night Before casts Seth Rogen (The Interview), Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Looper), and Anthony Mackie (Captain America: The Winter Soldier) as a trio of childhood friends who have reunited every year on Christmas Eve to engage in all manner of debauchery. With Rogen’s character about to become a father, Mackie’s character about to become a bona fide celebrity, and Gordon-Levitt’s character still uncertain about where his life his headed, the three friends decide to bring an end to their annual tradition with one last, crazy night in New York City.

It would be easy to dismiss The Night Before as dumb fun, and in many ways that’s exactly what it is, but in this case that’s a good thing. As with other holiday films of its ilk, it playfully subverts (or outright ridicules) the usual, sappy-sweet holiday tropes and careens through the boundaries of so much of what is often held dear about the season. Everything is fair game, from sidewalk Santas and ugly sweaters to midnight Mass and Christmas marriage proposals, and Levine and his trio of leading men bounce from one ridiculous turn of events to the next on their merry adventure through the Big Apple.

In the grand old tradition of classic holiday movies, The Night Before also recruits some familiar faces to help tell its story. Miley Cyrus, James Franco, and Tracy Morgan all play brief parts in the characters’ journey from one end of the city to the other, but of the more substantial supporting roles, Oscar nominee Michael Shannon really stands out as a sketchy drug dealer who repeatedly gets pulled into the friends’ wild night — a role he plays to wonderfully creepy perfection.

It would be easy to dismiss The Night Before as dumb fun, and in many ways that’s exactly what it is, but in this case that’s a good thing.

To his credit, Levine does a nice job of maintaining momentum in the film from the moment the trio set out on their all-night holiday booze-and-drug-fest to the film’s somewhat shmaltzy final moments. Where other films might ease up on the jokes for the occasional reminder about the true meaning of the season, The Night Before rarely leans heavily on sentiment, and when it does, the moment often serves as the set-up for a joke. It’s a strategy that serves the film well by preventing it from becoming yet another sappy Christmas story masquerading as a comedy.

The trio of Rogen, Gordon-Levitt, and Mackie show relatively good chemistry as the film’s leading men, but never manage to seem quite as comfortable with each other as one would expect longtime friends to be. It’s telling that most of the film’s memorable moments involve the characters interacting with their supporting cast instead of each other, but to be fair, the film’s plot spends a surprising amount of time with the characters on solo adventures around the city.

Still, all three leads manage to carry their respective parts of the story along well, and the funny moments tend to be funnier when Rogen, Mackie, and Gordon-Levitt are bouncing off of each other both literally and figuratively.

Although The Night Before manages to pack a lot of “R”-rated drug humor and sex jokes into its 101-minute running time, it still strikes a balance between its holiday theme and its over-the-top humor. Despite its flaws, the film successfully delivers on the experience promised not only by its trailer but by all of the best examples of irreverent holiday comedies: poking fun at the traditions and tropes of holiday movies while still finding sincerity buried deep in the heart of all that sentiment and schmaltz.