Apparently some people really do experience the holidays as a joyous, twinkly lighted Kohls ad. How wonderful for them.
For the rest of us, a curly haired Jewish boy has arrived to remind us of the reason for the season. I’m talking, of course, about Seth Rogen, who stars in and produces “The Night Before,” a raucous and refreshing new take on the Christmas movie.
This drug-fueled buddy comedy is definitively not a family film — though “The Night Before” is a movie about the families we choose. Underpinned by a sweet tone, it earns its R rating with brio as a sprawling cast of comic all-stars cavort in New York City on Christmas Eve en route to a mythic party called the Nutcracka Ball.
It is worth noting this time of year, as we heap praise on dramatic actors, that comedy is hard, and take-no-prisoners performances take many forms. “The Night Before” is full of impressively committed comic acting, led by Rogen, who is surely the Laurence Olivier of playing stoned.
The movie reunites Rogen with his “50/50" director, Jonathan Levine, and co-star Joseph Gordon-Levitt while adding a new face, Anthony Mackie, to a story about three childhood friends who have convened each Christmas since one of them suffered a tragedy. Their believable screen chemistry reflects the uneasy spirit of friends who are holding a relationship together just as they are starting to outgrow it.
Drugs lend an aura of magical realism to a straightforward screenplay by Levine, Kyle Hunter, Ariel Shaffir and Rogen’s producing partner, Evan Goldberg. With set pieces showcasing New York at its holiday season loveliest, including Rockefeller Center and an FAO Schwarz-inspired toy store, Levine sets up a visual contrast to the misadventures of his delightfully weird characters.
Clad in gaudy holiday sweaters, the cast members are all working their own best angles. Rogen spends most of the film high as Isaac, a man convinced he must serve as his pregnant wife’s emotional rock. From a cocaine-fueled diatribe of anxiety in a bar bathroom to a midnight Mass meltdown wearing a blue Hanukkah sweater, he somehow manages to convey vulnerability while behaving like a lunatic. It is Rogen’s particular gift to seem decent while puking in church.
Gordon-Levitt sings and plays heartbroken with a charming sense of self-awareness as Ethan, a wounded guy who has reasons for keeping love at a distance, while Mackie flashes his winning, gap-toothed smile as Chris, a pro athlete obsessed with his social media profile.
Levine’s most inspired bit of casting is Michael Shannon. Best known for his dramatic work as intense, menacing characters in “Boardwalk Empire” and “Revolutionary Road,” Shannon reveals a droll side here as an emotionally overinvested weed dealer who is this movie’s version of Clarence the Angel from “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
The film’s actresses are equally gifted, their roles as co-conspirators in the night’s events a welcome departure from the scoldy wives or boobs-with-lines tropes that plague so many other male-driven comedies. Jillian Bell is Isaac’s lovably goofy pregnant wife, Lizzy Caplan is the girl who got away from Ethan, “Broad City’s” Ilana Glazer is a horny Grinch, and Mindy Kaling a relatable everywoman out for a good time on Christmas Eve.
With nods to holiday films like “Home Alone,” “Die Hard” and “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “The Night Before” knows exactly what it is — a movie to watch every year with friends, a plate of leftovers on your lap, your mood enhanced by tryptophan or ... something.
‘The Night Before’
MPAA rating: Rated R for drug use and language throughout, some strong sexual content and graphic nudity
Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes
Playing: In wide release