A lot of comics have a shtick, and the trick is to give it enough flexibility so that it can be twisted and reshaped in myriad ways without breaking. Since Seth Rogen’s leading-man breakthrough in 2007’s Knocked Up, his has been impressively bendy, playing overgrown man-children who end up pulling themselves together, stepping up to the plate, and embracing adulthood. Knocked Up ... Zack and Miri Make a Porno ... The Green Hornet ... 50/50 ... This Is the End ... Neighbors ... to greater or lesser degrees, he’s always set up to be the lovable, irresponsible doofus, which makes his eventual transformation into Functioning Grownup all the more cheering and touching. We didn’t think you had it in you, Character Played By Seth Rogen!
The Night Before is where the shtick snaps. A riff on Christmas movies, this bromance is an echo of that familiar Rogen template. Maturity is always the scary line on the horizon for his characters, but here it plays out in too-familiar ways. Plenty of his previous movies have executed the formula well; this one is only intermittently funny, and when it’s not, you see the seams too plainly.
The setup holds a lot of promise. Three longtime New York buds—Ethan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), Issac (Rogen), and Chris (Anthony Mackie)—have a tradition in which they hang out together on Christmas Eve. (It started when Ethan’s parents were killed by a drunk driver when he was a teenager, his pals rallying to his side so that he wouldn’t feel so lonely during the holidays.) Christmas Eve has become a fond annual bonding event that has deep meaning to them, but now that they’re older, they realize that it’s getting progressively harder to keep up the tradition. Isaac and his wife (Jillian Bell) are about to have their first child, and Chris has become a superstar in the NFL, mobbed by fans everywhere he rolls. So Ethan, who still seems lost, declares that this Christmas Eve will be their final blowout.
Anyone hoping for the 25th Hour of stoner comedies is going to be sorely disappointed. All three actors are relatively funny here, but they’re just funny enough that you wonder why they’re not funnier. Part of the problem is that director and co-writer Jonathan Levine (who previously made 50/50 with Gordon-Levitt and Rogen) rarely maximizes his rich premise. If this is really these guys’ final Christmas Eve together, there should be a sense of stakes and bittersweet reminiscence: It should feel like a big deal. (This is even more true considering that, this year, they finally got an invitation to a VIP-only annual Christmas rager that they’ve been dreaming about attending since they were teens.)
Instead, some rather mediocre busywork consumes their evening. They have to hook up with an old pot dealer they knew from school—played by Michael Shannon, sadly not reprising his role as the batshit-crazy villain in Gordon-Levitt’s Premium Rush—and Isaac overdoes it on mushrooms and cocaine, leading to his phone getting switched with a female friend’s (Mindy Kaling) and receiving dick pics from one of her admirers. Meanwhile, Ethan discovers that the girl who got away (Lizzy Caplan) will also be going to this party, and Chris longs to be accepted by his team’s superstar quarterback (Aaron Hill), fearful that his fame is fleeting.
Not one of these plot developments is especially hilarious, nor do any of them trigger much emotion. When The Night Before goes for shock humor—holy crap, photos of penises!—it feels strained, Levine providing the requisite R-rated laughs. And when the movie shifts gears for the leads to talk about their years of friendship, there are a few brief moments that are touching, but they don’t add up to anything bigger. This is where movies like This Is the End and Neighbors were far better: They took what were potentially simple conceits and developed them in inspired, sometimes straight-up-bonkers ways that made them exponentially funnier while also hinting at something deeper underneath. Essentially, The Night Before takes the lesson of This Is the End—it’s hard for guys to accept that friendships evolve over time—and just throws in some references to Home Alone.
At the same time that The Night Before is opening, Rogen is demonstrating his chops as a serious actor in Steve Jobs, which despite its poor box-office showing is a film that contains some of his best work. (He was also great in Funny People and the little-seen romantic comedy-drama Take This Waltz.) Rogen’s shtick has served him well, making him the face of a certain era of humane, raucous bromance that acknowledges that childish things must eventually be put away. If one secret to a good shtick is being able to contort it over multiple movies, there’s also another important trick: knowing when it’s time to give it a rest.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.