With ‘The Night Before’, Seth Rogen’s got nowhere left to go but adulthood
Early on in the new Yuletide comedy The Night Before, the schlub played by Seth Rogen receives a Christmas present from his wife (Jillian Bell of Workaholics fame, wifely duties sealing her funny bone in a stifling plaster cast). He opens the immaculately gift-wrapped box to find a Whitman’s sampler of controlled substances; a joint, a couple ecstasy tablets, a small vial of cocaine, a baggie of mushrooms, the works.
It’s not the sort of thing that women who play wives in bro-comedies usually give their husbands, but then, Rogen’s not playing the same sort of schlub he usually does, either. His wife has rewarded him with the contents of Hunter S. Thompson’s glove box because he’s earned it. Here, Rogen plays a successful lawyer and dutifully well-read father-to-be named Isaac who deserves one last night of buckwild chemical freedom with his best buds before embracing adulthood. His wife isn’t knocked up. She’s just pregnant.
Unlike his frequent costar Paul Rudd, Seth Rogen is not immune to the effects of aging. He’s not the slacker pothead that first charmed audiences in the Aptovian comedies of the mid-2000s. He couldn’t keep putting up the same schtick in movie after movie forever; now, if he’s going to do a whole bunch of drugs, the plot must accommodate that relative incongruity of a man his age doing such a thing. In Neighbors, Rogen and wife Rose Byrne only go buckwild# to reassure themselves that they’re not getting old (which is, of course, a surefire sign that you’re getting old) after the frat boys next door make them feel unhip by comparison. In The Night Before, he’s afforded one last gasp at total wanton irresponsibility before the birth of his child. When he first sees the vial of cocaine, he doesn’t bust out in his signature throaty chuckle and pocket it. He looks at it incredulously and mutters that he hasn’t done this in, say, eleven years. Rogen doesn’t spend his lengthy, intense trips blissed out and giggling with his friends; he’s holding on for dear life.
In no insignificant way, Rogen’s playing a fictionalized version of himself at this juncture in his career.
Rogen’s by no means aging out of comedy, but he must necessarily evolve beyond his heretofore trademark brand of overgrown undergrad affable-bro humor. Seeing him breathe life into Steve Wozniak last month in Steve Jobs was revelatory#; Rogen exposed untold depths as a character actor, imbuing the perennially frustrated Apple cofounder with a sympathetic streak and a backbone to match it. There’s no telling if Oscar gold is in his future, but a Jonah Hill-styled reinvention as a well-regarded actor is by no meant out of the question. Jason Segel pulled a similar trick this past summer with his shattering turn as David Foster Wallace in The End of the Tour, and now it may be Rogen’s turn to grow up.
If nothing else, The Night Before proves that Rogen’s still eminently capable of shenanigans, but the genesis of the comedy inherent in these situations has changed. Where once his consciousness-altering mischief was matter-of-fact, natural as can be — in the credit sequence of Knocked Up, when he and his idiot buddies play a round of boxing-glove-on-fire-sparring above the pool to the sweet sounds of Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s “Shimmy Shimmy Ya,”# they look like deer at play — the context has shifted. Now, it’s a matter of comical contrasts. The humor comes the incongruity of this adult man acting like a reckless kid.
This, as it happens, is a far more common vein of humor that will wear thin more quickly than any of us might like.
Surely enough, The Night Before seems aware of its positioning in Rogen’s career. Rogen himself had no hand in the script, though his frequent writing partner Evan Goldberg did. Even so, the thematic underpinnings of the film address Rogen’s current growing pains with surprising specificity. The Night Before is a Christmas comedy first and foremost, but on a baser level, it’s a coming-of-age tale.
Rogen’s character Isaac begins the film on a major precipice of his life, tentatively approaching the towering demands of fatherhood. In one of the film’s strongest recurring jokes, every time Isaac gets a little too messed up, someone’s there to remind him of what a clusterfuck of anxieties parenting will be, which sends him spiraling down a paranoid foxhole of bad vibes. The film is, in no small way, about a man daring to extend past that with which he was comfortable and break new ground in his life. But Rogen’s only one-third of the equation. This is a buddy film, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Anthony Mackie similarly face new stages in their lives. Mackie’s a pro footballer juicing on the down-low and getting a little too wrapped up in his newfound fame#. Gordon-Levitt’s character is just afraid of getting left behind, seeing how his friends have advanced to adulthood and he’s left in a state of perpetual adolescence.
JGL, ultimately, is playing the Seth Rogen character.
The movie concludes with an almost-appropriately obvious voiceover, wherein the narrator (who happens to be Santa, who happens to be played by Tracy Morgan in a sight more heartwarming than anyone involved with the production could’ve anticipated) lays out the moral of the story in the simplest terms: As you grow up, your friendships change shape along with you, but that’s okay. They don’t have to go away completely, but they must evolve. Because this is an American studio film, by the time the credits roll, their friendship has shed its college-aged component and become more about support and companionship.
Rogen’s evolving as well, beyond movies like this. And that’s okay.
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