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film review

The Night Before tests how many funny people Seth Rogan can cram onto one screen.Sarah Shatz

With its gallons of booze, David Mamet levels of profanity and enough pot to kill all eight of Santa's reindeer, The Night Before clearly aims to lodge itself into the well-established adult holiday comedy genre. You know the one: it's that comfy corner of the market where filmmakers freely mix vulgarity with sentimentality, vices with Vixen (see A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas, Bad Santa, Friday After Next etc.). In that regard, director Jonathan Levine's new comedy succeeds handily: The film is a near-perfect mesh of raunch and that-time-of-the-year sincerity – a warm hug with your drunk uncle.

But The Night Before also accomplishes something far more interesting in the background, something that star and producer Seth Rogen has been working on for his entire career: using film as a playground for comedy-ringer all-stars. Like The Interview, Neighbours and This Is the End (all co-produced with creative partner Evan Goldberg), Rogen's latest project is an exercise in testing the limits of how many truly funny people he can cram onto one screen.

The plot is simple, just like the three bros it centres on: Three lifelong friends (played by Rogen, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Anthony Mackie) endure one wild Christmas Eve in New York as they hunt for the ultimate holiday party. Along the way, they run into exes, rivals, criminals, celebrities and other quirky complications that have been plaguing Manhattanites ever since Griffin Dunne went to Soho in Martin Scorsese's After Hours.

As with the best comedies, the narrative beats don't really matter. All you need to know is that every false move results in a hilarious set piece that can stand aside such (non-seasonal) classics as Caddyshack, The Jerk and Anchorman. An encounter with a drug dealer offers each of our heroes a glimpse into their neuroses-addled futures. A cocaine binge for Rogen's character turns the teddy bear of an actor into a sweaty, cock-eyed ogre along the lines of Shrek. And a limo ride from hell ensures no one will ever drink Red Bull again.

The list goes on, and would be longer if I could recall every line drowned out by the chorus of laughter and tears at my press screening. But any comedy with enough test-audience torquing can score big, easy laughs – I mean, we all enjoyed at least bits of The Hangover, didn't we? (Well, I did. Not ashamed.) The Night Before, though, takes things a step further by flooding the zone with friends-of-Rogen talent – this is a film for which the phrase "hey, it's that guy!" was invented.

From the leads down to the walk-on roles, every part is filled out by either an established member of the comedy industry or a rising up-and-comer worthy of immediate attention. That means larger stars, such as Rogen, Mindy Kaling and Tracy Morgan, but also performers plucked from small-screen semi-obscurity (Workaholics' Jillian Bell, Nathan for You's Nathan Fielder, Broad City's Ilana Glazer). Even Drunk Santa #2 – the guy with maybe three lines – is played by one of the funniest, if little known, men on basic cable (The League's Jason Mantzoukas).

The result is a finely tuned comedy machine, a film that not only works as a standalone contemporary project, but one that will come to be viewed in five, 10, 15 years as a snapshot of industry players at their prime, and a handy guide to before-they-were-famous icons. For a comedy nerd, it's 100 minutes of pure joy.

Rogen isn't doing anything necessarily new – he's just adapting the lessons of his own mentor, Judd Apatow, who pioneered the ringer-cast concept with his TV projects Freaks & Geeks and Undeclared, which were populated by known quantities (Joe Flaherty, Ben Stiller) and on-the-cusp comic actors who are now ubiquitous (Rogen, Jason Segel, Amy Poehler, Kevin Hart). Think of Rogen's work as an act of paying it forward: Now that he's a marquee star, he can bring everyone he admires, big or small, along for the ride. (It's also a different model than the epic comedies of the sixties, when films such as It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World overstuffed their casts with established, and often fading, performers to compensate for more obvious weaknesses.)

Not everything works here. The three BFFs can seem ill-suited to one another, and the script keeps flirting with moments of absurdity when it should simply double down and commit. Still, The Night Before deserves to become an annual tradition – a film to both celebrate the season, and to see just what became of the guy who played Coat Check Patron.