The Night Before – Film Review by Shane Larkin
Director: Jonathan Levine
Writers: Jonathan Levine (screenplay), Kyle Hunter (screenplay)
Stars: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, Jillian Bell
I’m a shameless sucker for the holiday season, but not everyone is on board with all the saccharine lunacy and all the glorious bullshit it has to offer. There’s a character in The Night Before, played with hilariously crazed impulsiveness by Broad City’s Ilana Glazer, who is a devout disciple of most heinous grinches of Christmas movies past, the likes of Die Hard’s Hans Gruber and the Wet Bandits from Home Alone. She essentially encapsulates the spirit the movie as a whole is trying to conjure. A freewheeling, drug-and-booze-and-even-more-booze-fueled tumble through a festive New York on Christmas Eve as our three protagonists continue their annual tradition of chasing the wildest, merriest madness the night has to offer, but it’s also a celebration of the Christmas movie, and the infectious, overblown optimism that you can only really get away with flaunting once a year. Your mileage will probably vary depending on the level of fatigue you might be feeling with regard to the Seth Rogen stoner comedy formula, and the dramatic beats are all familiar and predictable. But The Night Before has undeniable heart, and it wears it proudly on the sleeve of its naff knitted jumper. Every character feels well drawn and believable, and in the right mindset it should have plenty of bellies shaking like bowls full of jelly. Christmas!
Ever since his parents’ death in a car accident in 2001, Ethan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) has sought familial comfort in an unbreakable annual tradition: getting obliterated every Christmas Eve with his two best buds, Isaac (Rogen) and Chris (Anthony Mackie). Ethan is at something of a dead end. An aspiring musician without an audience, he’s working as a department store elf over the holidays, and his fear of commitment has all but ruined his relationship with Diana (Lizzy Caplan). He doesn’t really have a whole lot going on. This year promises to be the most significant and debauched blow-out yet, however, as Ethan happens upon tickets to an infamous Christmas shindig that has eluded them for years: The Nutcracka Ball.
Isaac and Chris are ready to move on. Chris is enjoying some new found fame as a football player having his best-ever season (“his social media game is crazy”), and Isaac is about to have a child with his wife Betsy (the always delightful Jillian Bell). Maturity beckons, and obligations of adulthood seem to demand that their shenanigans need to come to an end. But as the friends set out for one last hurrah, they’re all forced to deal with the ways in which the past year has impacted each of them.
Aside from its endlessly adventurous spirit, occasionally dipping into magical realist territory, the cast is the real star atop this tree, elevating the film well above a forgettable exercise in excess for the most part. Most of the female characters threaten to occupy dead-end caricatures, but they end up emerging as real people with compelling dimensions. Astonishingly, Seth Rogen finds new life in his stoner-man-child archetype, basically reaching its logical conclusion as a mostly tamed family man who ends up taking every drug under the sun. A highlight sees him stumbling into a nativity scene outside a church and having a conversation with an inanimate shepard and his animals. Gordon-Levitt and Mackie wield comedic chops so effortlessly you wish they’d do it more often, and Michael Shannon all but steals the whole show as weed dealer Mr. Green.
The director here is Jonathan Levine (Warm Bodies, 50/50), who has proven himself a deft hand at cutting through the fluff of an established genre to find the soul at its centre. The Night Before ultimately becomes a sobering look at the notion of friends as the family we choose for ourselves, and the unfairly tenuous nature of these friendships as adulthood threatens to ice them over. There’s just enough emotional resonance and yuletide cheer to counteract its more infantile pleasures. Not every joke lands, and it’s not the most original entry into either the post-millennium bromance canon or the pantheon of Christmas movies, but you could do a lot worse this time of year.