Director: Jonathan Levine
Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, Anthony Mackie, Lizzy Caplan, Jillian Bell, Michael Shannon, Mindy Kaling
Release Date: November 25th, 2015
Setting a stoner comedy the night before Christmas might seem like a bad idea (or a gimmicky one at least) but in the hands of gifted director Jonathan Levine, this it’s a brilliant one.
In Warm Bodies, the young director found comedy in a romance between a young woman and a zombie. In 50/50, he earned laughs in a film about a young man battling cancer. Here, Levine builds a strong comedy from the premise of a young man named Ethan (50/50 star Joseph Gordon-Levitt) whose holiday celebrations took a devastating turn in 2001 when his parents were killed in a car crash. Instead of letting him wallow in his pain though, his friends Isaac (Seth Rogen) and Chris (Anthony Mackie) created an annual tradition with him. Each year on Christmas Eve, the charismatic trio go out to party and celebrate the holiday together.
Like in his earlier pictures, Levine finds comedy out of despair here and creates a memorable story by showing these young men forgetting their problems for one drunken, crazy night every year. Much of the film takes place on their annual jaunt, which — because of Chris’ budding football career and Isaac’s growing family (his wife is pregnant) — is set to be the boy’s last annual Christmas Eve adventure.
During this one night, the friends start the evening innocently enough (they dance on the famous piano keys from Big) but soon start visiting bars and engaging in more adult activities. Admittedly, there are some jokes that don’t work here but the screenplay by Levine, Kyle Hunter, Ariel Shaffir and Evan Goldberg is so packed with humor that if one joke doesn’t work, it’s overshadowed within minutes by two that do.
Admittedly, some of the plot devices here may seem familiar to fans of actors like Seth Rogen. Rogen is known for playing goofy pop-smoking characters before so his character situation here doesn’t seem like a major leap for him. Fortunately, the script finds enough hilarious ways to show Isaac’s drug-fueled adventure to make us forget how predictable the storyline is. From a hilarious conversation outside a Church to Isaac’s appearance at midnight Mass with his straight-laced wife Betsy (played by the always-game Jillian Bell), the comedy finds a number of ways to use Rogen’s physical humor and free spirit to wring humor out of the set-up.
Fortunately, though, the film’s script offers more than a long drug-fueled trip.
It also provides Gordon-Levitt with a strong overall narrative that gives this film a strong heartbeat. The young actor, who easily can switch from playing broad comedy to displaying real sensitivity, gives this film a much-needed moral center. His character is struggling professionally (his job prospects are dim) and personally (his last relationship ended badly) and he feels left behind because his two best friends seem to be moving on without him. Even though these characters’ behavior is often outrageous, their adventures together carry a real personal importance to these characters and that shows.
Mackie’s character is the least interesting of the three but his storyline (concerning his unearned athletic success) is strong enough to also provide a minor storyline here as well. The appearance of the character’s mother is also a nice touch that sets up the fitting final chapter of the story.
The Night Before has some standard comedy bits here and there but its great mix of holiday cheer and drug-fueled comedy is enough to earn a few great and memorable laughs.
Review by: John Hanlon