The Night Before works best when invoking Christmas’ supernatural spirit. This is not the typical case of affirming the existence of Santa (though he is present, in the form of narrator Tracy Morgan). Instead, it is more of the It’s a Wonderful Life-style holiday magic, with Michael Shannon as Mr. Green, the weed dealer and guardian angel of the three main friends (Seth Rogen, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Anthony Mackie).

This fantastical side is just the right sort of flavoring, because otherwise, the film would just be a perfectly pleasant tale in which everything works out in the end (with the requisite shenanigans on the way there). But there is a mature, humanistic vision within. The female roles are not too huge, but in the moments they have, they manage as much depth as the men in their lives. Rogen plays his typical man-child trying to grow up but freaking out about it, but it works partly because his significant other (Jillian Bell) is actually allowed to feel much the same way and strengthen their bond because of it. As a steroid-using football player, Mackie has a mother (Lorraine Toussaint) stern enough to call him out on his worst behavior but warm enough to have no love lost. JGL has the most significant arc, utilizing Christmas Eve to finally develop the capacity for romantic commitment. The object of his affection (Lizzy Caplan) manages to turn a tricky role that could have been an afterthought into a firm, but loving voice of reason that this otherwise meandering film needed.