by Ryan Anderson (@)
“The Night Before,” now in theaters, is very funny for much of its running time before undercutting its own subversiveness with a traditional, cliched, happy ending.
But, before reaching its treacly conclusion, “The Night Before” threatens to join dark, irreverent holiday classics like “Bad Santa.”
The parents of Ethan Miller (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) both are killed in a car accident when he’s a teenager, but his best friends, Isaac (Seth Rogen) and Chris (Anthony Mackie), ride to his rescue by taking him out for an evening of debauchery to take his mind off the tragedy and prevent Christmas from being ruined for him. Naturally, it becomes a tradition, as the three venture out in New York City every Christmas Eve for misrule that would make Caligula blush.
Alas, 14 years after their first Christmas Eve of merriment, the tradition is set to end, as two of the three grow into adulthood and responsibility. Isaac and his wife are about to have a baby, and Chris has become a major football star (with the aid of steroids). They no longer wish to engage in the risque ritual, even though Ethan remains in a state of arrested development–he’s just lost the love of his life because he refused to meet her parents, he’s a penniless singer/songwriter who makes music no one ever hears, and Chris and Isaac remain his only real family.
As you can imagine, their ostensibly final Christmas riot takes numerous unfortunate, hilarious, and genuinely bizarre turns before they all realize how much they love one another and how they can evolve while remaining dear, close friends. As pejorative as I sound with that last sentence, “The Night Before” does actually hit a real sweet spot on the difficulty of maintaining adolescent friendships as one ages. I’ve seen it happen to me in my life; my plethora of high school friends are my favorite people in the world, but I’ve lost contact with all but a few of them. You move away, you lose phone numbers, you get busy with life. But, maintaining those friendships is paramount, as Chris, Isaac, and Ethan recognize with the aid of individuals like their drug dealer, Mr. Green (Michael Shannon).
Shannon, a terrific dramatic actor, steals every scene he’s part of in “The Night Before,” acting as the ghost of Christmas past, present, and future, talking about how much he loves “The Great Gatsby” and getting wings for a good deed like Clarence in “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
One of the most-enjoyable parts of “The Night Before” is its self-awareness; when Mr. Green, for example, acknowledges his “quiet intensity” makes people uncomfortable, he may as well be talking about every role Shannon has ever played.
The movie lovingly incorporates Christmas iconography and holiday scenes from other films. Spotting these references is almost a parlor game for a viewer. For example, Chris, Isaac, and Ethan have become obsessed over a secret, invite-only Christmas Eve bash, “The Nutcracker Ball,” which echoes the desire of Tom Cruise’s character to gain entry into a clandestine gathering in “Eyes Wide Shut,” which takes entirely over the holiday
season in New York City, also the setting for “The Night Before,” finally gaining entry when Ethan snatches three passes from a man’s coat he’s handling as a coat-checking elf at a Christmas party. One of the Christmas Eve traditions for Chris, Isaac, and Ethan is playing the massive piano at FAO Schwarz, as the manchild played by Tom Hanks did so memorably in “Big.” A Christmas-hating woman, Rebecca (Ilana Glazer), who twice hoodwinks Chris, pilfering his pot, tells him her idols are Scrooge (“A Christmas Carol”), The Grinch (“How the Grinch Stole Christmas”), and Hans Gruber (“Die Hard”). When Rebecca tosses toy cars in the path of a pursuing Chris, causing him to tumble down, the characters rightly recognize it’s a move straight out of “Home Alone.” A mad dash to a hospital late in the film reflects the harried chases in myriad Christmas movies over the years. As the triumvirate are waiting for their drug dealer to show up outside the apartment building where Chris grew up, Ethan and Isaac persuade a reluctant Chris to go up to his mother’s apartmen
t to play “Goldeneye” on Nintendo 64–a passion of their youth. Of course, his mother is awakened, and, naturally, as any mother would do when her son and his two best friends show up in the middle of the night after she hasn’t seen them in ages, she makes them sit down for a meal. They protest, but ultimately enjoy it, hearkening back to the classic “Goodfellas” scene when characters played by Joe Pesci, Robert De Niro, and Ray Liotta crash Pesci’s mom’s house in the middle of the night with a dying mobster they assaulted earlier in the evening in their trunk; Pesci’s mom (played by director Martin Scorsese’s real-life mother, incidentally) insists they sit down for a quintessential Italian dinner and catch up.
The cameos and quasi-cameos are almost as entertaining as the Christmas callbacks. Miley Cyrus, James Franco, Tracy Morgan, Mindy Kaling, and Shannon all play themselves or versions of themselves to hilarious effect.
There are copious amounts of drug use without even a veneer of condemnation–even Isaac’s level-headed, pregnant wife, Betsy (Jillian Bell), gives him a panoply of drugs for his Christmas Eve blowout. “The Night Before” is the sort of film where Isaac, tripping out severely on mushrooms, says in all seriousness and sincerity, “Some cocaine will straighten me out,” the kind of film where Ethan gets beat up by two tanked Santas because he said their boorish behavior was soiling the sacrosanct red suits, the kind of film where Isaac has one of the funniest set pieces I’ve ever seen, as a drugged-out Jew spoiling everything about a Catholic Midnight Mass, including vomiting in the aisle and screaming about how “We (Jews) did not kill Christ!”
If you’re the kind of person who adores Christmas films like “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “Miracle on 34th Street,” “The Night Before” you’ll likely find “The Night Before” too impudent, but if you’re an impertinent rascal who fancies holiday fare like “Bad Santa” and Seinfeld’s “Festivus” episode, the insolence of “The Night Before” should be more in your wheelhouse.
I’ll give it a 60, plus, on the 20-80 rating scale.