Tuesday, August 31, 2021

It Came from the '80s: THE NIGHT BEFORE

 by Patrick Bromley

You lost your father's car. Sold your prom date. And a guy called "Tito" wants you dead.

Though he wouldn't become a movie star for another year and wouldn't be taken seriously as an actor for another two decades or so, The Night Before is just one of three excellent movies Keanu Reeves made in 1988. He wasn't yet a household name, but he was already on his way to becoming a movie star thanks to performances in Permanent Record, The Prince of Pennsylvania, and this movie, all released the same year and all of which presented Reeves as a sweet, sensitive screen presence with goofy comic timing. It would be hard to believe in 1988 that he would eventually become of the all-time great action movie stars (between Point Break, Speed, The Matrix trilogy and the John Wick franchise, Reeves is in many of the best action movies ever made). What was obvious in 1988 was that Keanu wasn't like many of the other teen actors of his generation. There's always been something special about him.

Thom Eberhardt's The Night Before is the After Hours of teen comedies. It is silly and sort of dumb (which After Hours is not), but it is also dark and strange and, at times, surreal (qualities After Hours has in spades). For these reasons, I'm willing to overlook its flaws, which are many. As someone who has made watching teen movies into a lifelong study, I'm happy to say I haven't seen another one like it.
Winston Connelly (Reeves) has a problem. He's just woken up in the middle of the street and doesn't know how he got there. His prom date, the pretty, popular, and totally spoiled Tara (Lori Loughlin of Secret Admirer and prison fame), has gone missing. His tux jacket is filled with money. His car is gone. Everywhere he goes, everyone keeps whispering the name Tito in a way that doesn't sound good for Winston. What happened last night?

From its opening sequence, which bounces back and forth in time between Winston waking up confused about where he is and what happened and Winston preparing for the prom, it's obvious that The Night Before is carving out its own place among the teen comedy genre. The film keeps this pattern up for roughly half its running time (until the events of the past finally catch up with the events of the present), giving it a kind of film noir structure which, as far as I can tell, makes it one of the earliest teen noirs ever made. It takes place almost entirely at night, it has that fractured chronology, and it's willing to be dark and weird; while it's not a textbook noir -- it's still a goofy teen comedy, after all -- it does bear some of the major hallmarks.
Like in his only other foray into teen movies, the awesome cult classic Night of the Comet, writer-director Eberhardt is more interested in subverting the genre with The Night Before than in slavishly following standard formulas. That's why the often-fetishized prom is at the center of the film but never seen (or attended, for that matter). It's why a movie that borrows its initial ideas heavily from Pretty in Pink (where it's all about the prom), Some Kind of Wonderful (geek gets popular girl) and Can't Buy Me Love (girl dates geek after bet) turns into an all-night odyssey around the seamiest parts of town, where the prom queen is sold into prostitution and the geek has to save the day. The Night Before may not be the anti-teen movie, but it comes close at times by refusing to bow to convention until it absolutely has to.

It's only on this level, really, that The Night Before succeeds. It's a comedy that isn't very funny. It asks us to buy the fact that these two kids fall in love over the course of one disastrous night, but only gives us one scene where they even tolerate each other. It doesn't help that it takes Lori Loughlin—who is capable of being sweet and adorable and quite criminal—and makes her every moment insufferable. The whole movie is kind of sleazy, even though it's in a very PG-13 way. Despite all of this, I still like The Night Before for its willingness to be odd and sleazy. Those are some of its best qualities.
It once was cool to bash Keanu Reeves. It has always pissed me off, because I have loved, loved, loved Keanu ever since this trifecta of films he made in 1988. While I won't use this space to do my full defense-of-Keanu diatribe, I will say that I think he's a great actor who has been miscast in certain projects over the years but who was a born movie star from the moment he came on the scene. Think of his turns in River's Edge and Permanent Record—or even Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure—where he's kind of effortlessly authentic; that's the Keanu that shows up for The Night Before. There were a number of other teen-movie stars that Eberhardt could've cast to play the sweet, clueless Winston, but they would have all been wrong for the part. The nerd-du-jour, Anthony Michael Hall, had a tendency to be too self-consciously cool in anything post-Breakfast Club. Andrew McCarthy and Jon Cryer were too soft. No one would have believed that Charlie Sheen selling his date into prostitution was an "accident." Reeves, on the other hand, is inspired casting to play a geek: his total lack of self-awareness and instinctive, wrong-headed line readings are perfect for someone as sweet and odd as Winston. He's more of a real-world geek than many that appeared on screen in the '80s, and his delivery of "It's a little owl" will always make me laugh.

The Night Before is one of those '80s movies begging for a rediscovery on Blu-ray. It would be perfect for Kino Lorber Studio Classics (let's hope they're reading), because the existing DVD is in 1.33 full frame and looks about as good as a VHS dub. Now that he's mostly known for stoic action movies, it's a reminder that Keanu Reeves can be very funny when he's given the right material (as further evidenced in recent projects like Bill and Ted Face the Music and Destination Wedding). Mostly, though, it's an oddball entry into the pantheon of '80s teen movies, one that's darker and more gritty than most, especially the comedies. I love it as a Keanu curiosity: one from a period where he was still trying to find himself onscreen and that reminds us he can be sweet and winning. He's been one of my favorite actors since the '80s and remains one of my favorite actors to this day. He's the best.

1 comment:

  1. If somebody disses Keanu I'll beat them with a wrench, and make them watch 'Destination Wedding'. That's my argument for Cool Breeze being the best