Director: Jonathan Levine
Cast: Seth Rogen, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Anthony Mackie
Run Time: 1 hour 41 minutes
MPAA Rating: R
It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas! OK, if you’ve been in a Target any time since October, it might feel like it’s been Christmas for millennia. But December is finally here and the holiday season is once again upon us. And this time the present we’re receiving is much sweeter than the unwarranted ire of North Korea. From director Jonathan Levine (of 50/50, Warm Bodies, and All the Boys Love Mandy Lane, because rest assured if there’s a slasher hidden in your closet, I will dig it out) comes The Night Before, the movie Judd Apatow would make if his heart grew three sizes.
Health warning: The Grinch is not scientifically accurate. If your heart should swell this holiday season, seek medical attention immediately.
The Night Before is your standard Apatow stable tale of a manboy learning to grow up. This time it’s Ethan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a 30-something with no direction in life. In a tradition that began the Christmas Eve 14 years ago when his parents died, he and his friends gather together on December 24th to celebrate and attempt to find a mythical party known as the Nutcracker Ball. However, this particular celebration will be their last, because Isaac (Seth Rogen) is expecting a child with his wife Betsy (Jillian Bell) and Chris (Anthony Mackie) is a rising football star with a lot on his plate. And a lot of syringe marks on his ass, if you catch my drift.
As the night progresses, Ethan must learn that friendships change, and that’s not always a bad thing. When the friends’ three different goals for the night inevitably clash, Chris and Isaac must also face harsh truths about themselves. Also, Ethan pursues his ex, Diana (Lizzy Caplan), who is a woman in a bro comedy and as such doesn’t get very much to do.
Although there’s at least a solid reason she might consider forgiving Ethan. Have you SEEN his face?
Obviously, question number one when reviewing a comedy is “Is it funny?” For my rule of thumb, I propose a secondary question: “Is Randall Park in it?” I’ve written about Randall Park until the cows came home and then left again because I wouldn’t stop, so I won’t belabor the point here. But! If Mr. Park blesses a movie with one of his mystical 30-second nuggets of screen time, it’s pretty much worth watching. Here, he gradates from Thankless Role to Hyperbolically Earnest Bit Part. Progress!
Yes, The Night Before is funny. It isn’t funny in quite as explosive a way as last year’s Neighbors, but it isn’t trying to be. Jonathan Levine has confirmed that the script largely concerned the film’s dramatic beats, leaving the comedy to the improvisational whimsy of its actors. This leaves the film with a laid back, hang-out quality that’s consistently pleasant but each scene lives and dies on the strength of its various performers.
For example, whenever Seth Rogen, Jillian Bell, Mindy Kaling, or Broad City’s Ilana Glazer are onscreen, they spin even their most tripped out, dubiously conceived moments into comic gold. Gordon-Levitt on the other hand, really nails the dramatic beats despite being a bit slow on the uptake humor-wise. And then there’s Anthony Mackie. He doesn’t give a poor performance by any stretch of the imagination, but he is woefully underserved by a character that leaves him physically stymied.
Take a look. Does any part of him scream “roided up footballer?” Because at best I see “investment banker with a lacrosse habit.”
The Night Before is a wholly modern comedy that actually integrates current slang, technology, and social issues in a way that doesn’t feel like a Cool Dad giving Tumblr a whirl. But it’s also a loving look back at Christmas traditions past that covers cultural touchstones as far flung as Run DMC, Die Hard, and Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Or maybe it was the Muppet Christmas Carol. Or Mickey’s Christmas Carol. Or Scrooged. Wow, we as a culture really can’t let that one go, can we?
Regardless, we’re dealing with a fun, nostalgic, but forward-looking movie. There ain’t nothing wrong with that. The movie has its share of icy patches, like some obvious foreshadowing, a scatterbrained plot, and an absurd level of focus on a minor character that hardly works at all, but you know what you’re getting when you sit down to one of these movies and it certainly delivers.
Its comedy is low key, but it still packs two of the best cameos of the year and a genuinely side-splitting dinner table scene that I’ll be quoting non-stop for the next, oh, several dozen years. Likewise, its drama is routine and predictable but can wring your tear ducts dry if you’re not too careful.
In other words, The Night Before is a nice movie. It’s a none-too-challenging, safely R-rated holiday treat that just wants you to have a good time. It knows it can’t compete with the classics like A Christmas Story, It’s a Wonderful Life, or Silent Night, Deadly Night III: Better Watch Out! (you know… for some people), so it doesn’t try. It won’t be in my annual holiday rotation, but I sure am glad I watched it.
TL:DR: The Night Before is a pleasant, predictable, but funny bro comedy.
Rating: 7/10Word Count: 906