The Night Before and all the images you see in this review are owned by Columbia Pictures
Directed by Jonathan Levine
Is it too late to declare a war on Christmas? I don’t mind the holidays, but I’ve also worked in retail so I got a firsthand look at the Christmas calendar creep and how NO ONE likes to push this shit in October, let alone November. Thankfully they ALMOST waited until December to start throwing out holiday films with last week’s Love the Coopers and now The Night Before. Unlike that other film though, I was REALLY looking forward to seeing this because I love Seth Rogen and his particular brand of comedy. Not everything he’s been a part of has been great (I thought The Interview was pretty underwhelming), but I always like to see what he does next which this time seems to be pretending he’s in the same age group as Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Anthony Mackie. Wait a minute. HE’S THE YOUNGEST ONE OF THEM!? Huh. Learn something new every day. So will this be the kind of movie to bring out the holiday cheer and break out the eggnog, or will this make everyone feel even Grinch-ier than they already are at this time of the year? Let’s find out!!
The movie follows the adventures of Ethan, Isaac, and Chris (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, and Anthony Mackie) on their last big Christmas Eve together before ending their tradition. You see, about fifteen years ago Ethan’s parents were killed by a drunk driver right around Christmas time and so his friends decided that they will spend the holidays with him which soon became a tradition. What also became a tradition is that they would party their ASSES off because they were young when they started it so of course that’s what they ended up doing. However, it’s been going on for way too long and Isaac and Chris have their own things going on while Ethan is still stuck in place, unable to get his life going. Still, he agrees to this being the last time they make this a big party event and even has a surprise for his friends that will make this the best one of them all. There’s a super-secret party that takes place every year (the Nutcracker Ball) that they’ve never had a chance to go to because they could never find out where it was or how to get invitations. Through sheer luck, Ethan finds three tickets for the damn thing at his shitty job and steals them without a second thought so that he and his friends can have the greatest night of their lives! Will this final night be all it’s cracked up to be, or are they just too damn old to keep going the way they’ve been going even for one more night? Will they be able to salvage their friendship despite the changes in their lives that makes it harder for them to find the time? Wait, how fucking deep is this movie about taking drugs and Christmas shenanigans!?
I genuinely loved the hell out of this movie and compared to last week’s Love the Coopers, this is a sincere love letter to everything we love about the holiday season while still managing to be screamingly funny in the Rogen/Goldberg (formerly Judd Apatow) empire. The movie does have some issues with its pacing and some of the subplots, but the ratio of good to bad here is pretty damn high for a stoner film and will most likely be the best holiday movie of the season which is ironic considering that it looks almost nothing like a true celebration of what we love about this time of year, at least in the conventional sense (and before Harold and Kumar did their version of this).
The biggest weakness of this is also sort of a strength here which is that our three main characters might be the weakest links in the movie in that the supporting cast here is top notch. That’s not to say that Rogen, Mackie, and Levitt aren’t enjoyable to watch in this, it’s just that it feels like the writers were having trouble finding stuff for them to do through the entire movie while finding it easier to write some seriously funny material for characters that weren’t in this as much. It doesn’t help that each one of them has a subplot that either feels unnecessary or only partially developed. Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character has the most going on in this being the one character with a tragic backstory and a Peter Pan complex, but that’s all he really has going for him so he ends up playing the straight man more often then he should. I guess it goes along with his character arc (he doesn’t have anything going on in his life, so he doesn’t have the distractions that the other two have on this night), but he ends up having the least to do until the end of the movie where it tries to wrap up everything that’s gone wrong in his life until now. It definitely works in this movie (the emotional gut punch at the end is one of the things that works so well here), but I wish they would have done a bit more punch up on his character arc.
Seth Rogen actually has a really great story in here where he’s about to have a kid and is losing his mind over it because he doesn’t feel as ready as he should. Okay fine, this is the same character he played in Knocked up and Neighbors, but what sets this one apart from the other times he’s done this is the way they wrote his wife in this movie. Jillian Bell as his wife Betsy is an absolute RIOT in this with every scene she has, but her character is also smartly written in a way that benefits Seth Rogen. She’s kind and understanding without being naive, and she knows better than to make sweeping generalizations of him based on his behavior in this movie. It feels like they have a real relationship that’s lasted long enough that this ONE crazy night isn’t going to ruin it for them. It’s refreshing to see that a movie’s conflict isn’t coming from the wife who won’t talk to the main character long enough to let him explain until after the requisite break up scene. While there is a small part in this where he’s trying to make sure his wife doesn’t find something out that he did that night, it’s not taken too seriously by anyone else and the wrap up for it is actually very sweet… which is hilarious considering what he did is not what you’d consider sweet in the slightest. Then again, that’s part of the movie’s charm. It doesn’t feel the need to make the audience object to what the characters are doing or feel they need to be punished for partying too hard. It seamlessly transitions between dark seedy humor and uplifting holiday cheer without breaking a sweat, and Seth Rogen pretty much encompasses that with his performance here. They do give him a comedic crutch which is funny at first but keeps going on to diminishing returns over the course of the film (he gets SUPER high and stays that way for most of the film) but it never gets bad enough that it becomes annoying because the film gives him enough unique set pieces to bounce off of that keeps it fresh enough.
Anthony Mackie kind of gets it the worst unfortunately. His gimmick throughout the movie is that he’s a professional football player who’s big into social media, so he’s always live tweeting, putting up videos, and posting images to Instagram throughout the movie. It’s okay but doesn’t get as much millage as Seth Rogen being stoned and his character feels more like a plot device generator. How are they going to get around? In his corporate limo of course! Should we bring the movie down a notch to have scene of them bonding? Let’s find an excuse to have them go to his mother’s house! He also gets the worst subplots. For no real reason other than to add SOME sort of drama to his story, he’s taking steroids. It never plays into the movie in any meaningful way and is only there so that he has something to be attacked for during the bromance break up scene at the end of the second act. They could have easily had his friends’ beef be about him starting to big league them now that he’s a celebrity which they DO bring up a little bit but is an even smaller part of this movie than the steroids. He also has a thing going on where he keeps getting scammed by a homeless woman who hates Christmas (Ilana Galzer) which is a decent idea but feels half baked. She doesn’t have much motivation to keep screwing this guy over other than hating Christmas, and it really only seems to be there so that Anthony Mackie has a reason to separate from his friends for a bit and to throw in a chase sequence.
As much as I’ve just complained about our three principal players in this, they still manage to be very funny throughout, and yet there’s plenty more about this movie that’s even better than them. I mentioned that Jillian Bell is funny in this, but it bears repeating. She has so many great scenes and hilarious lines in here that she would have completely stolen the movie from our main characters if she had more to do in this. I thought she was just okay in the Goosebumps movie (tolerable would the right word) but the way she is in this is on a whole other level of comedic skill that I couldn’t have guessed she was capable of just from seeing that other movie.
Almost as good as her is Michael Shannon as a local drug dealer (Mr. Green) who isn’t as funny as Jillian Bell, but gets much more to do and has an AMAZING ending to his story. The dude is unrecognizable in the role and his subdued performance (as he puts it himself, his quiet intensity) works great off of everyone else and is perfect for the part he ultimately plays in this story. Some other stand outs include Mindy Kaling, Jason Jones, James Franco (because of course he’s in this), and even Miley Cyrus who is only on for a couple of minutes but manages to get some good lines out before she exits the film which is probably for the best. I’ve never seen So Undercover, but I’m guessing that Less is More was the right move here when it comes to her role.
Unfortunately, the weak link in the supporting case (aside from Ilana Glazer) is Lizzy Caplan as Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s love interest. It’s a good thing she’s paired up with Mindy Kaling for most of the movie to throw out some funny lines because Lizzy Caplan is just not given anything unique or interesting to do here. She’s the object of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s affection and the representation of what he’s lost by not growing up which is a fine STARTING point, but they never really get past that with her character. She has one REALLY good scene towards the end where she tells Joseph Gordon-Levitt how much of a fuck up he is, but other than that her entire part is forgettable.
Really, that’s about all I need to say about this movie. Comedies are the kind of movies that live and die on the performers they have at their disposal, and to get too much into plot points or specific jokes would be a futile effort and would only ruin it for someone else. Bottom line is that the cast is great overall with a bit of weakness in the three main players and maybe one or two less than stellar roles in the supporting cast. The jokes are well written, the set pieces are thought out and well executed, and it even manages to have some genuine feels at the end to make you leave the theater feeling good. You really couldn’t ask for a better way to get the holiday season started than a movie like this, and I absolutely recommend you check it out. If you’ve never liked the other Rogen/Goldberg that are out there (Pineapple Express, The is the End, The Interview) then this may not be up your alley, but I think this is one of the better collaborations they’ve done so far and is easily the best Christmas movie since A Very Harold and Kumar Christmas. Go check it out, especially if you’re already dreading the holiday season. It’s not gonna talk down to you about the holidays, but it’ll give you a reason to stave the cynicism off for another day.
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