The Night Before (dir. Jonathan Levine)

Posted: December 18, 2015 in Uncategorized

“The Night Before” is an attempt to make a bittersweet Christmas comedy with all of the wacky, R-rated hijinks of a Rogen-Goldberg film (“Superbad”, “The Interview”).  It makes perhaps too many references to Christmas films of the past (“Home Alone”, “Die Hard”, etc.) and the intertextuality feels a bit lazy and overly nostalgic.  Then again, nostalgia is perhaps the overriding theme of the film.  Tradition and ritual can be good, but when we hold on to them beyond their shelf life, well, it can be worse for us than we realize.


Ethan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) lost his parents in a car accident just before Christmas in 2001.  His best friends, Isaac (Seth Rogen) and Chris (Anthony Mackie), not wanting him to be alone with his grief on X-Mas Eve, take him out for a night of drinking and hijinks.  This becomes an annual tradition until, well, life happens.  In the present, Isaac’s wife is about to have a baby and Anthony is star football player, and they just can’t do the same damn tradition anymore.  Sadly, Ethan’s life has remained stagnant as his friends’ have not.  The film shows the last night they plan to honor the tradition, and what happens to them.


Ethan is clearly stuck in the past for understandable reasons.  His life doesn’t have much else going for it except his friendships. He’s broken up with his girlfriend (Lizzy Caplan) because he was scared of commitment and change, and he’s working low-level jobs (elf waiter) while dreaming of a music career that’s going nowhere.  Isaac is also scared to move on, worried that he won’t be a good father and that he has no idea how to truly be a responsible adult, despite the bravado of confidence he puts on for his wife. Anthony is older than most men are when they become football stars, so to capture fame before he gets too old he’s injecting steroids. While Ethan is clearly in the worse shape, all of these guys are trapped by their past dreams, their uncertain futures, and just barely navigating the present.


The film proceeds as if it is a zany comedy of madcap adventures, ala an R-rated “Adventures in Babysitting”.  You know, one of those movies that take place over the course of one night and multiple set pieces build comedic suspense of how they’re going to solve this or that problem.  The issue here is that we never truly feel like much is at stake.  Anthony either will or won’t reveal his doping and either succeed or fail as a football star.  He’ll be fine.  Isaac is going to have this baby, whether he’s ready or not.  Ethan, well, he will either grow up or he won’t.  The lack of danger keeps the proceedings from being truly hilarious.


You can sense the pull of the director, Jonathan Levine, in this film.  Levine has made a mixture of horror films (the underrated “All the Boys Love Mandy Lane”) and comedies (“The Wackness”), and mixes of the two (“Warm Bodies”).  It seems like the film that has most influenced him up to this point is “50/50”, a very good film that also starred Rogen and Levitt where one played a man with cancer and the other his best friend helping him through it with humor and support.  That film was surprisingly very good and also heartfelt.  “The Night Before”, unlike “50/50”, is a full-on comedy and not a dramedy, so the attempts at being heartfelt don’t work as well (save for a nice little flashback to the first X-Mas Eve), and you can feel the tension between the wackiness of a normal Rogen-Goldberg comedy and the dramedy Levine would probably be more comfortable making.


“The Night Before” also features elements that don’t really work at all.  An attempt to have both product placement for Red Bull that also satirizes and subverts product placement doesn’t quite work and becomes annoying.  Narration at the beginning and the end of the film by Tracy Morgan also falls into the annoying-and-not-funny category.  I’d say most of the film’s humor works, but it mostly works on the smile-to-chuckle range, and there are only maybe one or two moments of true gut-busting laughter (one of which was in the trailers).  We do get a nice supporting role by Michael Shannon as an aging pot dealer that hits all of the right notes, and a few celebrity cameos that work better than they have any right to.


“The Night Before” is a likable movie because the leads are all likeable and have a good chemistry with each other.  If the film doesn’t quite end up being funny enough or heartfelt enough to enjoy a full recommendation, it’s certainly not without its charm.  One just feels like it was one or two drafts away from being a much better film, either by dialing up the comedy or dialing up the sad dramatic elements.  As it is, the film doesn’t quite find the balance between wacky comedy and dramedy. C+


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