Synopsis: Ethan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), Isaac (Seth Rogen) and Chris (Anthony Mackie) have been friends since childhood, and for a decade, their yearly Christmas Eve reunion has been an annual night of debauchery and hilarity. Now that they’re entering adulthood, the tradition is coming to an end, and to make it as memorable as possible, they set out to find the Nutcracka Ball – the Holy Grail of Christmas parties.
The Night Before 7.5
eyelights: its cast. its core conceit. its subtle humour.
eyesores: its incessant drug references.
“WE DID NOT KILL JESUS! WE DID NOT KILL JESUS!”
‘The Night Before’ is a 2015 comedy starring Seth Rogen, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Anthony Mackie. It follows three lifelong friends who have celebrated Christmas Eve together for well over a decade, bar-hopping each year in the hope of finding the location of the exclusive and infamous Nutcracker Ball.
This year, they will finally get lucky – and it’s an evening that will change them forever.
Yeah, I know: a Christmas comedy that stars Rogen, Gordon-Levitt and Mackie as party animals? Could my expectations be any lower? Well, surprisingly enough, it was actually pretty decent: the script was fairly tight, the performances were naturalesque and appropriate, and the situations were amusing.
I enjoyed it – and the buddy I watched it with had a blast.
Sure, it had its contrivances, like when the three rejoined at the same subway station (just a small bit of Christmas magic, folks!), or when a bombed Isaac was dragged to Church with his spouse and her family (which, let’s be honest, could have been avoided), but it was mild compared to other movies of this ilk.
If anything, ‘The Night Before’ tries to play it straight and lets the oddball situations speak for themselves. It’s all about these little moments, about the way that the characters interact and react to the world around them; the humour comes from the absurdity of human behaviour, not from cheap, manufactured gags.
For the most part, anyway.
One thing that people need to know going in is that these are three adult males partying for over 90 minutes: this mean an excessive amount of alcohol and drugs, and much of the humour revolves around Isaac’s large intake of all sorts of illegal narcotics – his behaviour and decision-making are affected, after all.
Now, you have to understand that I’m a die-hard straight-edge (and always have been) and I’m easily annoyed by drug humour because it’s become so rampant and it normalizes drug-taking. Basically, what’s usually intended to be funny is that people use drugs to switch off their brains and act like dumb $#!ts.
But, somehow, I wasn’t bothered by the way it was portrayed here: though Mr. Green, their former high school dealer, is glorified and shouldn’t be, Ethan (Gordon-Levitt) barely tokes at one point and Chris (Mackie) refuses to because he’s a football star who needs to keep his body clean due to drug tests.
It’s chiefly Isaac who’s doing the drugs: his spouse, who understands that it’s the trio’s last Christmas Eve together, put together a small selection of the best drugs she could find on Craigslist as a sort “thank you” for all his support during her pregnancy – he’d been straight and solid throughout. It’s a free pass.
A last hurrah.
I liked how understanding and accepting she was of him: she acknowledged his dark side and allowed him room to breathe for a night. Granted, I wish it had nothing to do with drugs, but I liked the principle: it was about gratitude and trust. She wasn’t enabling him, and he’s not a !@#$-ed up, drugged-out slacker.
So it made sense that she was understanding of the insane video that he made in a mushroom-fueled rant early on.
The whole thing was played up as a ticking time bomb, with the expectation that he’d send it by mistake, but I figured she’d be cool. I was really glad that the movie went that route instead of going with the cliché of the girlfriend/spouse who is upset with her partner for being insensitive/not understanding her/being a !@#$ up.
I also liked the way that Diana handled Ethan’s proposal. It was set up as the big romantic turning point, a movie cliché, but it was brought back to Earth immediately, when she explained that she only said yes because she was in the spotlight – and that she couldn’t possibly agree to it after having been alienated for three months.
(Then again, at the end we find out that she’d been pining over him this whole time… so why didn’t she just go for it?)
I loved Chris’ encounters with Rebecca, the hipster girl who pretends to be a fan and !@#$ him in the bathroom. Hilarious stuff, especially when her truth is revealed: she hates Christmas and spends the evening being a Grinch, taking inspiration from all of her favourite Christmas villains, including Hans Gruber from ‘Die Hard‘.
Ha! Too much!
What an awesome character! And what a terrific performance by Ilana Glazer!
And it’s not just the women who have interesting dispositions, either!
I really enjoyed Isaac’s reaction and interaction with the sexter on Sarah’s phone. Part of it might have been the drugs talking, but I liked that he admitted to himself that he was a bit bi-curious and took it all in stride. And the way he reacted to actually meeting the sexter was pretty funny, leading Sarah to call him a cock block.
I also thought it was way cool how he and Sarah discussed the whole matter and buried the hatchet over his support of her sexual curiosity. There wasn’t the usual guy-girl tension between them: they were two people with their own separate sexual interests; they weren’t competing or trying to bed each other.
The way the sexting was staged (with the texts appearing in the bottom right corner and Isaac’s internal monologue spoken in overdub) was dynamic.
And I really liked how the picture wrapped everything up. Unlike most films of this kind, there was no unnecessary drama – even the mild tensions between the guys didn’t play out in the standard “argument before mending their friendship” cliché. Basically, they all matured and moved on to the next step in their lives.
The main cast was really solid, and played off of each other nicely.
- I’m no great fan of Seth Rogen. For one, he’s always far too goofy; he’s never realistic enough for my taste. I guess he’s always played the dumpy-but-funny type. Here he’s playing it straight – as straight as a guy tripping on drugs could be. But he’s not going for the laughs, per se; he’s allowing the situations and reactions to do the work, which is great. So his performance was a nice surprise.
- Gordon-Levitt was also good, as per usual, though he appears more and more worn. Oh, but why in the world did he sing so much? The guy has no voice, so were the filmmakers being ironic? Or did they really want an average singer trying as best as he could? Ugh.
(And, seriously, while I appreciate the trio’s karaoke performance, rapping is not singing; it’s usually the refuge of people with no voice. Just admit that you can’t sing, dude, and leave the mic to someone who can. As with those shouters in metal, in moderation rap is fine. But, holy snap has rap permeated the landscape! And I’d much rather hear someone sing. To me, rap is a side-dish, not the main course. I know… I’m old school more than ol’ skool.)
- Anthony Mackie was new to me. Though I’ve seen him before, it was in some of his earlier bit parts and I took no notice. I liked him because he reminded me of early Will Smith in some ways – though his acting chops are more solid than Smith was when he got started.
- All of the secondary characters were really well-performed, but Miley Cyrus’ cameo appearance at the Nutcracker Ball skewed the balance a little bit, being that she’s such a big star. Firstly, it didn’t make sense to me that she’d be at the party alone and not attracting attention. And I was immediately skeptical given the weirdo fruit bunch in her hair, doing a Carmen Miranda-lite. But she was natural, and I really love the sound of her voice. There was the inevitable, cringe-inducing musical performance with Ethan, but her background vocals (she gives him the spotlight) were hilarious – she sung -and highlighted- the inanity that he was spewing, trying to make it musical. Pretty funny stuff.
The party scene was amazing if only for the way the sound opened up: while most of the picture was front-heavy, the moment we hit the party, the room filled up with crowd noises and these great bassline rumbles. Even the music was mixed in such a way that it felt like you were in a confined space filled with tons of people.
It felt like you were there. Very nice.
So, though ‘the Night Before’ is essentially a bar-hopping movie with misadventures on the side, I thought that it was well-crafted and is pretty entertaining. I could have done without all the drugs, but I had no illusions going in, given the theme, the cast and the times that we’re in; it was going to be crazy in some fashion.
But it wasn’t so crazy that I won’t revisit it before long.
Date of viewing: December 23, 2016