Directed by: Jonathan Levine
Premise: Three friends (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogan, and Anthony Mackie) have made a tradition of barhopping on Christmas Eve. But with one of them now a sports star and the other on the verge of fatherhood, they’ve resolved to make this year’s celebration the last.
What Works: The Night Before reunites 50/50 director Jonathan Levine with actors Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Seth Rogan. The 2011 film mixed drama and comedy in the story of a young man going through cancer treatment and the filmmakers intend to strike a similar balance in The Night Before. The dramatic content of this film lands and is often very powerful. Actors Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogan, and Anthony Mackie play friends who are broaching middle age; for the past decade they’ve celebrated Christmas Eve as a night of drunken debauchery but now it’s time to put this tradition aside. However, there is a dramatic undercurrent to their drunken misadventures. The tradition was sparked by the death of the parents of Gordon-Levitt’s character and the annual bar crawl was a way of helping him through a difficult time. A decade on, Rogan and Mackie’s characters realize that they’ve become enablers and that this tradition has outlived its purpose. That gives the character relationships of The Night Before added dimension and grants the story gravitas which help the movie considerably. It’s also a smart commentary on the holiday season itself. The supposed season of joy is actually quite awful for a lot of people and the way that the tradition between these friends has gotten away from its original intentions and become a ghastly exercise in materialism and self-abuse is a provocative and appropriate metaphor of the way many people celebrate the holidays. The self-reflexivity is enhanced by the way that The Night Before incorporates elements of familiar Christmas stories, namely It’s a Wonderful Life and How the Grinch Stole Christmas but also fare like Die Hard and Home Alone. As part of the film’s allusions, Michael Shannon plays as a mysterious marijuana dealer who functions like the ghosts of Christmases past, present, and future in A Christmas Carol. The role gives Shannon a chance to do comedy, which he does not frequently do, and he’s quite good in the part.
What Doesn’t: The story of The Night Before requires a very specific balance of drama and comedy but the filmmakers don’t find it. The movie is all over the place and the tone careens between broad comedy and intense drama. While the dramatic moments work in and of themselves, they are sometimes too serious for the rest of the movie. The comedy portions don’t fare any better. Nothing in The Night Before is all that funny and there’s very little imagination in this film. The holidays are rife with opportunities for comedy as seen in A Christmas Story and National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation but the filmmakers rarely seize the traditions and icons of the season. A lot of the comedy of The Night Before consists of generic one-crazy-night gags involving booze and drugs and sex that we’ve seen plenty of times before and in some cases done better in other movies starring this same cast. That becomes quite evident in the finale of The Night Before in which the characters arrive at a secret holiday party that’s full of celebrity cameos; at that point it’s This is the End all over again, complete with James Franco playing (who else?) himself. The few holiday related gags of The Night Before aren’t very original or they are overplayed to death; Seth Rogan’s character is Jewish and the film makes several references to the crucifixion of Jesus. It’s provocative the first time but after that it just becomes desperate.
Bottom Line: The Night Before is a frustrating movie because the potential is there to be a very good or even great movie but the film is too unfocused and not funny enough.
Episode: #572 (December 6, 2015)