Jingle Your Bells
By Mason Manuel
The holiday movie. Every year a new one rolls around with its’ own quirks and differences but usually rolls into the same formula. People have problems that all get solved thanks to the power of the holidays. With every year these entries grow more and more groan worthy which made me hesitant to put hope into Seth Rogan’s latest despite the track record his past few generally entertaining films have had. So does The Night Before break the holiday movie loop? Not really, but that doesn’t make it any less fun. In fact, thanks to some awesome storytelling and direction from Jonathan Levine, The Night Before has turned out to be one of my favorite holiday films ever.
Note that my liberal use of “Holiday” movie is not to be more P.C.; The Night Before makes sure to riff on all December traditions far and wide. And politically correct it is not because the tale of these three friends does not give a f*ck. Everything starts off normal enough. The story literally opens with a classic book animation accompanied by some… unique narration. We follow the adventures of three friends; Ethan (Joseph Gordon Levitt) who sadly one Christmas Eve lost his parents, soon to be dad Isaac (Rogan) and upcoming football star Chris (Anthony Mackie). Isaac and Chris decide to try and cheer their friend up by taking him out on the town Christmas Eve to experience any and all holiday traditions and do the craziest shenanigans they can get away with. For years they do this, but as they grow older Chris and Isaac get dragged down more into their responsibilities and mutually decide with Ethan that they need to have one last blowout before calling it quits and growing up for good. It’s a coming of age story if you will, which would not be overly unique if not for the story that Jonathan Levine tells. Levine has a talent of using normal plot lines for his films and then directing them in a way that is totally unique. Whether it be the cute buddy adventure spin on beating cancer from 50/50 to the cute(?) zombie human love story from Warm Bodies, there is always some loveable take on what would normally be a “ugh another zombie/cancer flick?” from him. Props to his directing then that he can take yet another overly used theme and turn it on its head.
The credit can’t go to him alone. The chemistry of the trio is fantastic. It really feels like they were all having a fun time on set and bring their real friendships to screen just like in This Is the End. There’s plenty to laugh at here from the tried and true use of fat Seth Rogan doing crazy stuff on shrooms to JGL’s loveable balance of immaturity and emotional trauma. Mackie does not get as much time to bring in laughs as the others but instead brings in more of the soft center of the film. Trying to live up to his team and embrace his athletic prime, his character turns to steroids and is constantly trying to fit in with the “cool kid” club on his team. Eventually he is forced to admit he’s cheating to his friends which forces them to come to their own revelations. Isaac feels nowhere near ready to be a dad and Ethan realizes he uses his parents’ death to make excuses for not progressing his life. These emotional moments are cute in their own right but they never quite hit as hard as they’re obviously trying. These points of awareness are helped along by the films secret star player Michael Shannon who acts as the spirit guide/weed dealer for the group. Despite being well known as playing right bastards in most of his recent films (Man of Steel, 99 Homes) he comes off perfectly as a freaky, funny hippie that brings a Scrooged-like plot onto screen. Every scene he is in will have you rolling around in the aisles and is easily the greatest performance the film has to offer.
A raunchy Christmas/holidays story is nothing new but The Night Before is so much more than its marketing suggests. “The Tale of Three Dudes” sure, but they’re more than just dumb assh*les walking around; they feel like actual people with real problems and real growth which again is thanks to Jonathan Levine’s superb story writing. It’s fun, there’s heart, and it will easily speak to those who realize that growing up makes keeping old friends around difficult. There is very little not to love here and I definitely recommend it as a must see. RDR gives The Night Before an 8.7 out of 10.