by Patrick Bromley
The Night Before was one of my most anticipated movies of this holiday season, based primarily on that wonderful trailer and the participation of Seth Rogen, who I maintain is one of the most likable stars working in movies today (both on and off screen). The movie is a mess, but its an incredibly well-intentioned mess with a winning cast, a lot of laughs and a shit ton of holiday spirit. It's a pretty hard movie to dislike.
The movie reunites co-writer/director Jonathan Levine with his 50/50 stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Seth Rogen who, along with Anthony Mackie, play three best friends with a long tradition of getting together every Christmas Eve to have wild times. It's something they started back in the early 2000s after Gordon-Levitt's character, Ethan, lost his parents and had no more family with whom to spend Christmas. It's 15 years later, though, and Ethan still hasn't really moved on with his life -- he's working a job he hates and pining away for his ex-girlfriend (Lizzy Caplan) to whom he could not commit. Isaac (Rogen) is expecting his first child and stressing out about his impending fatherhood, while Chris (Mackie) has become a successful football player complete with fame, a Red Bull endorsement and a sick social media game. Now, on their last Christmas Eve together, lives will be changed, cameos will be made and Miley Cyrus will be sung.
Tonally, the movie is all over the place. Sometimes, it's the kind of raunchy R-rated film we've come to expect from Rogen and company (including his most frequent collaborator Evan Goldberg, credited here as one of four screenwriters). Sometimes it's sweet and sincere. Sometimes it becomes silly and veers into broad fantasy. This isn't a criticism, per se; as I'm fond of saying, it's rare for a movie to be even one thing successfully, so I appreciate the willingness of The Night Before to do a lot of different things. Some work better than others -- because it bounces around so much, there's never quite enough time for any of these tones to really develop enough to stand on its own -- but the mixture gives the film its own distinct vibe. It's the kind of movie that likely plays even better on a second viewing, when those shifts become less a thing that needs adjusting to and more a part of the fabric of the film.
Levine doubles down on making this a Christmas movie -- it's not just a comedy that takes place on Christmas, but rather a love letter to many Christmas movies past. It's unfortunate that everyone feels the need to call attention to the references, though, so when a character wipes out on Micro Machines he has to say "I've been Home Aloned!" (this despite the fact that the character who drops the tiny cars makes mention of The Sticky Bandits, which is actually a Home Alone 2 reference, and that if she's trying to imitate those characters she should be falling on the Micro Machines, not placing them...NITPICK). The score, by Marco Beltrami and Miles Hankins, lays the holiday whimsy on especially thick, but it ends up giving the movie an innocent charm. This is not a comedy of misanthropy or embarrassment. It's a movie about decent people who want to take care of one another, and about forgiving the flaws and mistakes of the people you love. It's a lovely sentiment.
Apparently we've reached critical mass with movie titles and now have to recycle existing names, meaning every time someone mentions The Gift they have to differentiate if they're talking about Sam Raimi's Southern Gothic thriller or this year's Joel Edgerton-directed creepfest. It's going to take some time before any mention of The Night Before doesn't make me think of Thom Eberhardt's '80s teen comedy in which Keanu Reeves accidentally sells prom date Lori Loughlin to a pimp, but I may get there eventually. I like this movie because it means so well and because, like a lot of the comedies with which Seth Rogen aligns himself, it is willing to underscore the laughs with real emotional stakes. Like its characters, The Night Before is messy but trying to be better. That's hard to fault.