The Night Before
Directed by Jonathan Levine  
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, Anthony Mackie
Rated R for drug use and language throughout, some strong sexual content and graphic nudity
1 hr. 41 min.

Way before you’ve basted the Thanksgiving bird, just as the last Halloween witch hopped on her broom and soared away, you may have noticed that Rudolf’s nose started blinking like a hazard light. Christmastime is here! Along with it comes music, either merry or mawkish, and movies both schmaltzy and sentimental. Fortunately, none of the latter three adjectives would describe The Night Before, an expletive-strewn, controlled-substance-fueled holiday romp that’s definitely merry, appropriately or otherwise. Those searching for yuletide fare filled with heart-tugging, gag-inducing warmth are advised to seek out the Hallmark or Lifetime channels. This is bawdy stuff, definitely rated R. Whoville it ain’t — uproarious, it is.

Ethan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), Isaac (Seth Rogen) and Chris (Anthony Mackie) are three New York City pals from high school days who cement their bond when Ethan suffers a holiday tragedy. At that point they observe a series of annual Christmas Eve traditions that include an array of inebriates, paying homage to the giant piano keys scene from Big, and a desire to crash the Nutcracka Ball, an exclusive Manhattan Christmas bacchanal that continually eludes them.

On this particular night before Christmas, Ethan, having a less than successful life, is pining away for his ex (Masters of Sex star Lizzy Caplan). Chris, now a pro football player, is experiencing career rebirth via enhanced means, and nervous Isaac is fretting over his pregnant wife, played by a giddy Jillian Bell. Maturity and pending responsibility have deemed this more than likely the last night of their tradition, so all bets are off.

Here’s where Seth Rogen grabs the script, collectively written by Director Jonathan Levine, Kyle Hunter, Ariel Shaffir and Evan Goldberg, puts it in his pocket and hauls off on a bravura comic performance. Rogen has established himself as Hollywood’s connoisseur of cannabis. Where Dean Martin embodied the boozy charmer, Seth is the lovable loadie, making Cheech and Chong look like Trappist monks. Clad in a Hanukkah sweater, Rogen’s Isaac charges forward on a series of drug-addled mishaps that entail every facet of millennial life, from ill-advised videos to sexting, with generous dollops of classic hip-hop and gulps of Red Bull for good measure. He is eggnog-spitting hilarious, literally and figuratively tripping every step of the way over the snow-covered, brightly festooned Manhattan streets.

Through the raw language and raunchy hijinks, there are a number of winks at Christmas favorites such as It’s a Wonderful Life, How The Grinch Stole Christmas and Home Alone, each played for laughs. Those winks are hyperkinetic in the case of the drug peddler played by a lugubrious Michael Shannon (Boardwalk Empire), whose nod to at least one classic holiday character cannot be mistaken.

What’s even more engaging is that, regardless of its adult content, the themes of family and friendship shine through for both the guys and the women they encounter (Mindy Kaling, by the way, is her typical wacky self as the loopy friend of Ethan’s ex.) Christmas season magic coexists with libidinous, narcotized, unbridled hedonism that leaves you in stitches. Rogen, high as a kite, Star of David emblazoned across his sweater at midnight mass, is alone worth the price of a ticket. Whether we acknowledge it or not, all the hard-partying is as much a part of the holidays as candy canes and Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree.

Why not? We deserve the laughs during what has become a long, people-and-pressure-packed holiday season — the laughs sans saccharine. In The Night Before, pals Ethan, Chris and Isaac, through naughty and nice and a hefty number of guffaws, guide you to the meaning of the season — especially Rogen’s riotous Isaac. It’s a comedy that’s a gift for all 12 days of Christmas, this year and beyond.