Director: Jonathan Levine
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, Anthony Mackie, Jillian Bell, Michael Shannon, Lizzy Caplan
When This is the End was released in 2013, I found myself laughing so hard that the film became my new standard of comparison for comedies (and also one of my favorite movies). If you’ve seen the red band trailer for The Night Before, then you know that the film boasts about its shared origin with this wildly offensive apocalyptic comedy. Surely enough, The Night Before sports a sense of humor with the same nature of This is the End, although it does make an effort to go deeper. Director Jonathan Levine doesn’t quite succeed at establishing meaning for everyone, but a decent attempt does make the film sentimental. Fortunately, most viewers won’t be going to see this film in search of a deep message; they’ll be attending for a good laugh – and that is something that this film truly excels in.
When Ethan’s (Gordon-Levitt) parents were killed in a drunk-driving accident on Christmas Eve, his two best friends, Isaac (Rogen) and Chris (Mackie), were the ones who helped him through it by getting him wasted. This was the beginning of a grand tradition for the trio, and each year the three of them would spend Christmas Eve tearing it up together. The film begins fourteen years after the first outing, and the gang has decided that this Christmas Eve will be their last together, as Isaac is about to become a father and Chris has gotten busy with his newfound fame. When their wild night begins, Ethan reveals that he has obtained tickets to Nutcracker Ball, the wildest and most exclusive annual Christmas party in New York City
One of the things Jonathan Levine has shown through his work on this film and the 2011 comedy/drama 50/50 is that he has a knack for taking an unoriginal concept and presenting it in a unique way. He largely achieves this through the detail in his films’ characters. In 2011 (quite unfortunately), cancer was not exactly a new issue used in films, but Levine made 50/50 inspirational with his unique protagonist. Similar to this, In The Night Before Levine presents three protagonists who are dealing with issues that everyone has faced: growing up and crumbling friendships. The catch is that each member of the group is dealing with a different personal demon, but these demons are all emotions that each audience member can relate to in his or her own way. Isaac is struggling with the thought of being a father, and he’s terrified that he’s taking on something that’s too much for him. Everyone has felt something like that, even if they haven’t dealt with impending fatherhood. The horror of being pushed into something that you’re unsure of is a feeling familiar to us all. Then, there’s also Chris, who has become quite a jerk since gaining fame as an athlete. For much of the film, he’s insanely unbearable in the way that he constantly chooses his fans or tries to elevate his status instead of spending time with his friends. Yes, this is annoying, but the audience also knows that deep down Chris only wants to be liked; he’s merely forgotten whose opinions of him actually matter. Practically everyone is guilty of making this mistake more than once in their lifetime. Of course, there’s also Ethan, who’s evidently scarred from losing his parents, and emanates a deeply rooted fear of being left behind by his two best friends – the only family he has. Again, each and every person has faced this fear at some point, and Levine uses this to gain the audience’s unwavering sympathy for him. All of these battles that Ethan, Isaac, and Chris face are a large part of the challenge of growing up.
It’s clear that Levine capitalizes on the fact that this theme especially resounds with millennials in their twenties. People often refer to this generation as the “Peter Pan Generation,” because higher costs of living and difficulty finding jobs make it so that milestones such as moving out of parents’ houses are not as easily attainable to these people, and so they experience these milestones later than previous generations. Because of this effect, many adults of this age feel like they haven’t quite grown up, and have no clue what they’re doing. The main characters in The Night Before echo this feeling, as they struggle to deal with the challenges that have lingered from their youth. Seeing Isaac, Chris, and Ethan deal with these problems and come out alive on the other side is reassuring to this generation of viewers.
Now that this has gone deep, it’s time to reign it in and talk about the most important part of The Night Before: the comedy. It’s true that about fifty percent of the comedy is based on the fact that Isaac is tripping on a plethora of drugs the entire time, but this is something that audiences expect from Seth Rogen. The humor is also carried by the supporting actors like Michael Shannon, who plays a drug dealer named Mr. Green and acts out a mini drug-induced version of A Christmas Carol with the trio. There are also many fantastically hilarious and surprising cameos (which I won’t spoil) that contribute to the film’s outlandish sense of humor. And finally, The Night Before salutes a great number of Christmas films such as Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Die Hard, and Home Alone (with Seth Rogen perfectly imitating Kevin McCallister’s iconic facial expression). A caveat: those who have difficulty taking the subjects of religion or drug use lightly will not be able to appreciate the film’s comedy – anyone who’s easily offended by these topics will do well to steer clear of the film.
I went into The Night Before trying not to get my hopes up, because although I’m a huge fan of Jonathan Levine, Seth Rogen, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, I knew that the film had been getting mixed reviews. So of course, my lowered expectations made the film seem even better than it would’ve been if I’d gone in with high hopes. In spite of this, the fact that Jonathan Levine has made a film that’s both hilarious and sentimental is impressive. Also, I’m Jewish – so I tend to receive most Christmas films with an air of aloofness. The Night Before is the one exception that I’ve found, which is why this film is enjoyable even for those who don’t celebrate the holiday.
Bottom Line: The Night Before is a wild and fun film that’s certain to become a holiday comedy classic.