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Review: The Night Before

December 7, 2015

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

The Night Before PosterPerhaps the most surprising thing about The Night Before is that this raunchy buddy comedy proudly wears its heart on the sleeve of its brightly coloured novelty sweater.  This is a Christmas movie that has all the beats of a new holiday classic, along with some of the biggest laughs of the year.

After his parents died, Ethan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) was left depressed and alone for the holidays.  So his two best friends Isaac (Seth Rogen) and Chris (Anthony Mackie) created a new tradition to help pull him out of his funk.  The three “ride-or-die homies” have spent Christmas Eve together ever since, partying hard and getting into whatever trouble they can find.

But now that Isaac is expecting a baby with his wife (Jillian Bell), and Chris has suddenly hit it big as a football star, this is going to be the last year for their annual tradition, and they are planning to go out with a bang.  Ethan has scored tickets to a legendary and almost mythical New York holiday bash called the Nutcracker Ball, which has eluded them in years past, but their journey getting there provides its own share of highs and lows, both emotional and substance-induced.

Isaac’s wife has gifted him with a multitude of drugs as a thank you for being such a supportive husband, which leads to him constantly tripping out and desperately attempting to work through his growing fear of becoming a father.  Chris is on a quest to find pot for one of his fellow players, while trying to avoid his doting Momma (Lorraine Toussaint), lest she find out his success has come from using steroids.  Ethan is struggling to confront his own fear of growing up and moving on, heightened by chance encounters with his ex-girlfriend Diana (Lizzy Caplan), who recently slipped away from him.

Although Ethan is the main character and through line of The Night Before, the other characters are equally well developed and fleshed out.  These are friends who have essentially become family, and we believe their dynamic, because of the genuine chemistry that Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen and Anthony Mackie have together, falling into a very natural rhythm and perhaps meant to represent a comedic version of the Three Wise Men.  There are also plenty of delightful surprises, including some great celebrity cameos and wonderful supporting roles.  Michael Shannon is especially memorable as wise drug dealer and life sage, in a kind of perfect role that is nicely woven in and out of the film.

This is a wild, drug-fuelled and frequently hilarious ride that also taps into the innate fear of ending up alone on Christmas, and there’s something pretty special about the way The Night Before pulls off this balance.  Director Jonathan Levine continues to prove himself as a master of handling different genres and tones, seamlessly blending raunchy humour and stoner sight gags, along with genuine heart and moments of pathos.  It’s no surprise that this was the same director behind the profoundly moving cancer comedy 50/50, which was one of the finest movies of a few years ago, and also drew career best work from co-stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Seth Rogen.

The film is also surprisingly respectful of Christmas and Hanukkah celebrations.  Yes, there are a few moments of irreverence, but The Night Before is genuinely in love with different seasonal traditions, and the numerous pop culture staples that come with it, working in clever references to a multitude of holiday classics, including several sly nods to Home Alone 2: Lost in New York.  The soundtrack also helps keep the spirit alive, memorably utilizing Run-D.M.C.’s “Christmas in Hollis,” and nicely bookended by the Darlene Love classics “All Alone on Christmas” and “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home).”

This is a movie that is made to be enjoyed, a film that delivers lots of laughs and also isn’t afraid to show its big heart, with an ending that is just as touching and bittersweet as we would expect and want from a Christmas story.  This is a comedy that is equally interested in having an authentic dramatic arc, and The Night Before works precisely because of how much we come to care about these characters and their friendship.  We want these guys to find joy, we want them to stick together, and most importantly, we also have one hell of a time just hanging out in their company for a couple of hours.

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