This semi-improvised stoner comedy of male friendship ultimately outstays its welcome

The Night Before is not the first stoner Christmas comedy – 2011’s A Very Harold & Kumar Christmas beat them to it – but it’s the most thoroughly drug-addled yet. It’s also a warm-hearted story of male friendship, something of a speciality for director Jonathan Levine and star Seth Rogen, and a Christmas movie that recognises both the importance and the weirdness of the season.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as Ethan, orphaned at Christmas years before the story starts. His best friends Isaac (Seth Rogen), now a respectable lawyer and expectant father, and Chris (Anthony Mackie), a rising NFL star, have got him through the holidays each year with a combination of alcohol, karaoke and the search for a mythical party called the Nutcracka Ball. But while Ethan remains frozen in time, the other two are planning an end to the annual tradition – and so personal drama looms amid the pot jokes.

But first there are a lot of pot jokes, and dick jokes, and all manner of ill-advised ingestion of mind-altering substances, including one extended gag in which Rogen’s Jewish character freaks out in a Catholic church, terrified that he will be pilloried for his beliefs. His cheesy Christmas jumper sports a Star of David, nicely demonstrating the modern reality that goodwill towards men extends far beyond the boundaries of Christianity.

Credit: Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc/Sarah Shatz

The script was semi-improvised, which often shows in the film's loose, mildly chaotic tone, but it also allows the three charismatic stars to riff easily together. Rogen and Gordon-Levitt have been here before, in cancer comedy 50/50, but Mackie’s boundless energy gives their laid-back vibe a welcome goose; it’s a slight pity that his arc doesn’t get more attention.

Smaller characters do well with limited material: 23 Jump Street’s Jillian Bell is strong as Isaac’s doting wife, while Broad City’s Ilana Glazer is a Christmas naysayer who crosses paths with Chris. A number of celebrity buddies also turn up to good effect, but the comedy highlight is the generally serious Michael Shannon as drug dealer Mr Green, bringing a barmy intensity to scenes of delightful silliness.

The film tries a little too hard to force seasonal cheer with repeated talk of Christmas miracles and endless nods to festive predecessors from Die Hard to It’s A Wonderful Life to Home Alone (repeatedly). It fits in multiple endings, Return of the King-style, desperate to give everyone the happiest possible send-off. Really, it didn’t need to strain so hard in the final stretch. It'is best when being itself, however badly-behaved that is.