The Night Before (2015)

11/23/2015  By  Jordan Saïd     No comments

A funny thing happens in your thirties. You begin to fully realize just how much you’ve changed since high school and college. You might have kids or a spouse. You go out to fewer parties. You might not see your friends or your parents as much. But your best friends—the ones you’ve stayed close to for years—become more like siblings than friends. You don’t see them as much, but you’d give them a kidney without thinking twice. Not even necessarily just your kidney.

The Night Before wears the mask of a Christmas comedy, but the story really revolves around friendship in one’s 30s. Ethan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), Isaac (Seth Rogen), and Chris (Anthony Mackie), three longtime friends, all 33-34 years old, have begun to drift apart. Ethan, who lost his parents as an adolescent, lives a dead-end existence as a caterer, recording music he never shares. He recently drove away his girlfriend Diana (Lizzy Caplan), whom he wants back. Isaac has a baby on the way with Betsy (Jillian Bell), but he doesn’t feel ready for fatherhood. Chris has become a famous football player, but he secretly dopes and has become addicted to the self-marketing and commercialist aspects of celebrity. The three intend to conclude a 14-year annual tradition: one last big night on the town on Christmas Eve. To that end, Betsy has given Issac a box full of every kind of drug she could find, and whatever happens happens.

Seth Rogen reacts to cocaine like a kid in a nose candy store.

The Night Before doesn’t always feel like a comedy. It certainly brings some good laughs, but Seth Rogen does most of the work. It feels like This is the End in that it gets weird and surreal, but it never gets quite as funny or fully shakes its predictability. The other characters get some good scenes—Gordon-Levitt in particular has a hilarious altercation with two drunk Santas (Jasons Jones & Mantzoukas)—but Rogen’s drug-fueled comedy carries the film. It also takes a while for the laughs to really kick in, often disrupted by writer-director Jonathan Levine’s need to hit all the basic story beats. Ethan’s quest to win back Diana goes through all the usual highs and lows, and of course, the friends have the obligatory fight halfway through, after which they make up and go back to the comedy.

As for the non-Rogen humor, the women prove funnier than the men. Mindy Kaling and Jillian Bell prove excellent foils for Rogen; they both consistently work off of his manic energy and roll with his punches. Ilina Glazer has a great role as a snarky pickpocket who idolizes Die Hard’s Hans Gruber. Even Lorraine Toussaint of all people gets some good lines as Chris’s incredibly understanding mother. Unfortunately, despite the fact that the film obviously centers its comedy on improvisation, every actor except Rogen feels woefully underutilized. Nathan Fielder and Tracy Morgan also play funny characters who don’t get used to nearly their full potential. James Franco makes a cameo that plays off his chemistry with Rogen, which unfortunately didn’t go anywhere here. Michael Shannon plays Mr. Green, a quirky drug dealer whose intensity almost seems otherworldly. He has one scene with each of the three leads, each of which almost seems like it comes from some other film. This strikes me as one of those films where the gag reel outshines the movie itself.

This shot from the trailer doesn’t even make the final cut, but it describes the film pretty well anyway.

Surprisingly, the dramatic aspect works better than the comedy. All three characters have relatable dilemmas, but the theme of maintaining lifelong friendships comes across strongest. The three characters have to learn how to continue their friendship now that they have commitments and obligations and individual lives of their own. The film sells both this fraternal kind of friendship and Ethan’s fear of ruining it. The romance arc between Ethan and Diana feels pretty by-the-numbers, but the way Ethan’s friends encourage him makes up for it.

The film acknowledges and owns its influences, with several references to Christmas movies ranging from Home Alone to Die Hard.  Music plays a big role as well. The three leads get a charming scene using the famous FAO Schwarz piano from Big, and do memorable renditions of Run DMC’s “Christmas in Hollis” and Kanye’s “Runaway,” which feel reminiscent of Gordon-Levitt’s lip-sync battles with Jimmy Fallon. In addition, Miley Cyrus has a climactic cameo that will probably prove this film’s most iconic scene.

Continuing the trend of paying tribute to old stuff, this movie has enough fish-eye perspective to kill Hype Williams.

So The Night Before could have had more humor and better drama, but its story feels grounded in emotional truth. Friendships really do require more effort in one’s thirties, but by then, the friendships that have stood the test of time have come to feel fraternal. I may not have laughed all the way throughout The Night Before, but as soon as the film ended, I remembered to call up my best friends. So in that sense, mission accomplished.

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About Jordan Saïd

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Jordan Saïd does mathematics by day and writes for Front Row Central and Turban Decay by night (and weekend). He specializes in American road films, kung fu cinema, and camp (the aesthetic, not the wilderness). He lives in Eastern Washington with five cats.

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