Sorry to do this, but you and I are going to have a frank conversation about dick pics. Bottom line is, you should never send one out unsolicited. Even solicited dick pics are kind of a terrible idea; the potential for disaster is just too high. Spirits run high, an idea becomes an action … and the next thing you know, your junk is jingling and jangling its way through our cellular networks, and where it stops, nobody knows. Maybe it reaches its intended party; maybe it goes to your best friend; or maybe it goes to an ex who immediately adds it to that all-dicks portrait of Donald Trump. You cannot know.
The dick pic portion of Jonathan Levine’s Christmas comedy The Night Before has some fun with that premise. In this case, the unsolicited photos find their way to Isaac (Seth Rogen), who accidentally switched phones with Sarah (Mindy Kaling) at a karaoke bar. And the funniest thing about his reaction—really, one of the funniest things about the film—is how temperate it is. After his initial shock wears off, he begins chatting with the sender—have to keep up appearances for Sarah, right?—and even expresses a kind of dumbstruck admiration for what he’s seeing.
That’s The Night Before in summation. Its characters behave in ways you wouldn’t expect of a comedy like this—ways that run contrary to most comedies you’ve seen. Some of these character shortcuts have become so ingrained in the genre that I fully expected certain characters to revert to them over the course of the movie: I braced myself for the shrewish wife, the clueless elderly mother. But they never showed, and I rewarded their omission with dumbstruck admiration.
The screenplay, by Levine, Kyle Hunter, Ariel Shaffir and Superbad writer Evan Goldberg, is basically a framework built to support improvisation and character work, though it does pack a surprising emotional punch. It begins, through a wonderful narration by Tracy Morgan, in Christmas 2001, when Ethan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) loses both his parents to a drunk driver. His best friends, Chris (Anthony Mackie) and Isaac, visit him at home on Christmas Eve, determined to lift his spirits. One memorable night of partying immediately becomes an annual tradition, as the three friends get together every Christmas to get stoned, visit Rockefeller Center, feast on Chinese food and look for a mysterious holiday party called the Nutcracka Ball—what the ladies of Comedy Central’s exquisite Broad City would call “the Narnia of Partias.”
Speaking of Broad City, that show’s Ilana Glazer shows up in The Night Before—one of several actors who deliver nearly perfect performances in a very small amount of screen time. There’s also Isaac’s pregnant wife Betsy (Vegas native Jillian Bell), who gifts her husband with a grab bag of illicit drugs that she purchased off Craigslist: “I just typed in ‘NYC drugs.’” There’s Randall Park, who instructs Gordon-Levitt in the finer points of “Elf face.” And Glazer, working just to the left of her Broad City character, plays a self-described portmanteau of the Grinch and Die Hard’s Hans Gruber.
I have taken care not to reveal too many of The Night Before’s surprises here. But the most surprising thing about this comedy is that it has surprises. It’s a real Christmas gift—poignant, fleet on its feet and uproariously funny. And if for no other reason, you should see it for Michael Shannon’s performance as philosophical pot dealer Mr. Green. Whether he’s proffering a strain of indica that imparts “surprisingly accurate visions of the future,” or trying to reassure a shaken Isaac with George Michael lyrics (Put your little hand in mine), Shannon’s dry-mouthed irreverence simply delights.
I’d even venture to say that Shannon’s performance is what audiences will remember best about The Night Before. Well, that and the dick thing.
The Night Before (R): ★★★★✩