It’s heartwarming to see a proper return for high-profile Christmas movies in 2015. Despite Hollywood getting cold feet about them for the past several years, whether due to quality concerns, or an overdone demand for political correctness, they’ve slowly started to trickle back into the November and December movie schedule. Among this year’s Christmas movie offerings, one also stood especially high in early promotion and star billing, that being The Night Before, an R-rated Christmas comedy that buries a sweet, timeless message underneath a whole lot of crude, irreverent jokes.
The Night Before is the brainchild of Jonathan Levine, who previously united Seth Rogen and Joseph Gordon-Levitt for 2011’s superb cancer-themed comedy, 50/50. This time, Rogen and Gordon-Levitt are joined by Anthony Mackie, making his Holiday movie rounds after starring in both this, and Love the Coopers from the previous week. As much as The Night Before is more aggressive in its brash rudeness and silliness compared to the more emotional 50/50, its writing and lead cast maintain the same incredible sense of heart, making for a movie that is very likable, even at its most mischievous and gross.
Some may argue that The Night Before falls just shy of being a true Christmas classic, and maybe its hard R-rated humour will indeed deny it that status in the end. Nonetheless, the movie should be a high-priority theatre trip for adult families with a great sense of humour during this Christmas season, and is bound to be a movie that a good chunk of people will still remained very attached to for home Holiday viewing throughout the years.
As with 50/50, Joseph Gordon-Levitt most often occupies the starring role in The Night Before, as Ethan Miller, a thirtysomething who lost both of his parents many years ago, leading to the start of a Christmas tradition of barhopping and tomfoolery with his best friends, Isaac Greenberg (who participates every year, despite being proudly Jewish), Seth Rogen’s character, and Chris Roberts, Anthony Mackie’s character. After over a decade however, Isaac’s and Chris’s lives are changing drastically, and they decide to have one last night of fun before stopping the tradition with Ethan, who is more stuck and aimless in his own life.
Despite Isaac and Chris initially being portrayed as the most mature of the trio, with Ethan seeming to be stunted in comparison, they’re hardly portrayed as perfect people themselves. Isaac is now married to a wife, Betsy, played by Jillian Bell, who is nine months pregnant, and about to give birth to their first child. This has Isaac outwardly acting like the perfect husband, though inwardly, he’s losing his mind, and is extremely insecure about being a father, leading to Isaac being extremely high on drugs throughout almost the entire movie. Likewise, despite Chris’s newfound fame as a 34-year-old football player, we see right at the start of the movie that he’s actually taking steroids, and is something of a fraud.
These character conflicts are well-explored in The Night Before, with the first act of the movie seeming to highlight Ethan being unable to let go of a tradition, believed to be a byproduct of not wanting his own life to move forward, and then the second act actually switching gears, and putting Isaac and Chris under the microscope, with the other side of the situation explored. Admirably, the movie doesn’t make any one of the leads universally right or wrong. Ethan isn’t wrong to want to keep a good tradition with his friends going, even as we’re initially inclined to feel sorry for him and his insecurities about advancing in life, but that doesn’t immediately make Isaac and Chris right for being excessively wrapped up in their own lives, to the point where they forget about what really matters.
This helpfully makes The Night Before an even and fair assessment of how modern young people view the Holidays, both the good and the bad of it, underneath the mostly amusing gross-out gags, dick jokes and Yuletide mischief anyway. The movie carries the great message of growing up and having to evolve traditions being inevitable, but sacrificing all of time and enjoying oneself with family and friends should never be an acceptable price for supposedly advancing in life, since you’ll always need your family and friends, even when you no longer have your supposedly all-important careers, followings and/or other short-term time-sinks. It also helps that Rogen, Gordon-Levitt and Mackie also have fantastic chemistry with one another, which enhances both the laughs, and the message behind The Night Before.
Another highlight actor in the movie, and perhaps the best of the bunch, is Michael Shannon, who portrays enigmatic drug dealer, Mr. Green. The trio must continually call on the services of Mr. Green throughout the movie, who shadily invites them individually into his car at various points in the movie, to talk to them about where they stand in their lives, amidst doing lots of cannabis, of course. Despite having only a handful of scenes, Mr. Green is one of the movie’s funniest and strangely wisest characters, and even if you’ll come for Rogen, Gordon-Levitt and Mackie to start, you’ll probably end up staying for and re-living The Night Before because of Shannon.
The only drawback to what’s otherwise heartfelt character work throughout The Night Before is the fact that the romantic arcs of the movie feel lacklustre. Lizzy Caplan portrays the former girlfriend of Ethan, whom he still wants to win back, but it feels like she’s barely more than a plot device. Caplan is one of the movie’s most unfortunately under-utilized actresses, especially when she already worked with Seth Rogen so well in The Interview last year. Likewise, Jillian Bell, despite at least getting better jokes, is similarly only there to service the arc of Seth Rogen’s character. She has one standout scene, the highly-promoted (and hilarious!) church scene with Rogen, but that’s about it.
You have to dig a bit to find the real heart behind The Night Before, which doesn’t pull punches with its rude gags, nor its mischievous satirizing of other beloved Christmas-themed movies and characters, but the digging is worth it. The Night Before feels like one of the most bold and modern Christmas movies to come along in a while, and while its message is simple, it’s perfect for the season, and always bears repeating, especially as young people of the modern era especially seem to have become busier and more self-involved than ever.
The Night Before seems like a pretty routine setup for an R-rated batch of Holiday hijinx. The movie simply begins with its three leads deciding to have one last big blowout, before ending their Christmas partying tradition. The movie then unfolds over the course of that one crazy night. It’s a setup that’s been done before in plenty of other R-rated comedies, though the Christmas theme sets The Night Before apart.
As I said though, the movie’s initial setup becomes more in-depth and relatable as the movie goes on. What begins as a seemingly simple night of mayhem and debauchery eventually becomes a surprisingly heartfelt night of self-examination, and coming to terms with change. It’s well worth respecting a smart movie that can so effectively disguise itself as a stupid movie, and The Night Before definitely pulls that off well, resulting in a movie that’s quite fun and enjoyable, though one that certainly doesn’t feel redundant or disposable, especially as a sure-to-be Holiday favourite for a good chunk people after they pick up the movie for their home viewing collection later.
Sure, the ultimate message of family coming first is certainly not a novel or unique message amongst Christmas-themed movies, but the way that The Night Before modernizes the message for an intelligent adult audience is nonetheless worthy of approval and attention. It may not quite be a timeless classic, and its story probably won’t replace the appeal of classic Holiday movies that it mischievously jabs at with certain jokes, from Home Alone to It’s a Wonderful Life to even Die Hard, but what is here effectively combines humour and heart in the Christmas spirit, even amidst the vomiting and penises.
Jonathan Levine has proven a knack for smart comedy between the likes of 50/50 and Warm Bodies, even when his movies outwardly appear less intelligent than they actually are. The same is true of The Night Before, which he directs with a surprisingly careful hand, even during the scenes that are supposed to be more outrageous. This may lead to some wishing for an R-rated Christmas comedy that was perhaps a little more proud to fully embrace its mischief and silliness, but the intelligence and heart behind The Night Before make some of the missed opportunities for bigger laughs a bit more forgivable, especially when most of the movie is still pretty funny overall.
Levine’s love of Christmas, and in fact all Holiday traditions, seems to run pretty deep as well. Even if this story idea could have easily been applied to other backdrops beyond the Holiday season, The Night Before makes good use of the Christmas spirit overall, even getting decent mileage out of one of its lead characters being Jewish, in that hysterical church scene at the very least. It’s not the most outwardly festive movie ever made, but it is definitely a Christmas movie, and one that can still be easily enjoyed by people who don’t observe Christmas, since it’s directed to be plenty fun and heartwarming on its own merits.
The Night Before views Holiday tradition and what comes with it through a smart modern lens, making it definitely one of the better Christmas movies made over the past several years. It will probably fall shy of being an instant Holiday classic for many, but is still bound to be a favourite with plenty of people, particularly thanks to its likable lead performances, amusing jokes, and well-trodden, but no less important overall message.
The rude gags may be a turn-off for some, but they’re merely the comedic icing on a surprisingly sweet, grounded cake. Even if you’re coming for the rude gags, you’ll get the best of both worlds, even if the movie does skew a bit more towards being grounded over being outrageous, most of the time at least. That’s fine though, since it means that the rudeness doesn’t come at the expense of the Holiday cheer.
Holiday movies made explicitly for adults are often in short supply these days, at least in wide theatrical release, and that’s one of the key ways that The Night Before stands above its seemingly routine premise. Ultimately, the novelty behind the movie doesn’t extend much further than its R-rated Holiday spin, but it’s likable, funny and will lift your spirits, making it a worthy Holiday comedy in its own right. All it demands is that you’re alright with seeing a few prosthetic dicks. It’s a small price to pay for the heartwarming satisfaction, really.
- Likable lead performances
- Smart, funny Holiday satire
- Heartwarming themes of family importance
- Sub-par romantic arcs
- Not that novel, beyond its R-rating