Shallow but fun11/25/2015
“Twas the night before Christmas…” is a line that that immediately sets the seasonal tone in addition to likely having a morality lesson hidden in the plot. While the main lesson of “The Night Before” is abundantly clear, it’s some of the sub-plots and side comments that lead to hazy predictions.
Directed by Jonathan Levine (“50/50”), “The Night Before” is the story of how best friends Ethan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), Chris (Anthony Mackie) and Isaac (Seth Rogen) have spent every Christmas Eve together raging in New York City since Ethan’s parents died in 2001 after being hit by a drunk driver. Fast forward 14 years, and Ethan hasn’t really grown up, working as an elf at a catering service, longingly dreaming of his night out with friends. However, with Chris’ newfound celebrity and Isaac’s baby on the way, this marks the last year of their tradition.
This year will be different, of course, because Ethan has managed to pilfer three tickets to the holy grail of New York Christmas parties — the Nutcracka’ Ball.
Before the party, the night starts harmless enough with the three doing their old traditions before the secret location of the ball is revealed later in the evening. This involves a good amount of drinking for everyone involved. For Isaac, it also means a gift box of miscellaneous drugs, including cocaine, molly, mushrooms and a joint.
It would be easy to write off “The Night Before” as dumb — and don’t get me wrong, in many ways that’s exactly what it is — but in this case, that’s a good thing. Unlike other holiday films of its ilk, this film playfully subverts — or straight-up mocks — the usual, sappy-sweet holiday tropes and careens through the boundaries of so much of what is often held dear about the season. Everything is fair game, from sidewalk Santas and ugly sweaters to midnight Mass and Christmas marriage proposals.
One of the more entertaining characters is the Jiminy-Cricket-like character, Mr. Green, played with “quiet intensity” by Michael Shannon. Mr. Green was the trio’s high school dealer who can show them a surprisingly accurate version of Christmases Past, Present and Future, attained by a very specific strain of weed he is more than happy to prescribe.
Ultimately, this is a stoner film that surprises. You don’t need drugs to enjoy the comedy, but those on them will enjoy the barrage of references to Christmas films past. Nod to “Home Alone,” “It’s a Wonderful Life” and Hans Gruber from “Die Hard” foment a sense of festive nostalgia that’s hard to resist.
This is a ridiculous comedy that’s often lacking in real substance, but it’s not claiming to be anything else. Some of the bits fall flat, but the film presses forward with relentless enthusiasm and festive cheer. So what if it can’t decide whether we should be rooting for the guy to get the girl, the friends to come together, the dad-to-be to step up and become the man we know he can be, the athlete to overcome steroids or the drug dealer to make friends. This drink- and drug-fueled comedy trip is one you may not want to repeat, but one on which you can look back and laugh. CV