The mixture of familiar comedy with Christmas spirit and three great leads make this the best modern Christmas film in years.
Christmas is a time of year to spend with people that you love. Or so the movies keep telling us. In that respect The Night Before is no different, and frankly the rest of it could feel dangerously similar to other stoner-cum-friendship comedies of the past ten years. But the synthesis of a little Christmas spirit, a charismatic cast on top form, and direction that easily juggles the separate stories and tones, help it more than pass the bar.
In 2001, one young man lost his parents, just as Christmas came along. However, Ethan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) formed a tradition that on Christmas Eve his best friends Chris (Anthony Mackie) and Isaac (Seth Rogen) came to rescue him from his loneliness, one that sees them spend all night drinking, singing, and on the hunt for the mystical Nutcracker Ball in New York. 14 years later and life has happened to two out of the three. Isaac is married and about to have a baby, while Chris has suddenly found fame in football. Only Ethan seems to be stuck, always making excuses for why he can’t settle down or find a good job. But this Christmas Eve, for their last ever run at the tradition, they’ve got tickets to the Nutcracker Ball. And Ethan wants to make this their best night ever.
This is an undeniably Christmassy film: Ethan is introduced wearing an Elf costume, holding a tray of canapés; there are incredibly festive jumpers everywhere, donned by our heroes like battle armour; a nativity scene plays a key role during a bad drug trip that Isaac goes on; someone gets into a fight with two drunken Santas over the idealistic view of the “spirit” of Christmas. However the comedy and the emotional journeys of all the characters don’t need the film to be set during this time. It could just as easily be set on American Independence Day, or maybe any normal day. There is no uncomfortable effort to cram a Christmas message into proceedings, and the eventual journey feels organic not just to the characters, but to the holiday itself. That success, on top of the one where the tones of scenes never feel conflicting, and never drag the film down, is definitely down to writer-director Jonathan Levine. It’s in line with the work he did on Warm Bodies, easily balancing the comedy, romance, and occasional action there, but this time there are far fewer clunky lines. And less zombies.
Each of the three leads do great dramatic and comedic work here, and although it’s absolutely Ethan who is the main character, their screen-time and their journeys never feel unequal. Gordon-Levitt has all his normal enthusiasm and charm as Ethan, backed up by a very real unhappiness, often manifesting in anger. Mackie, probably one of the most charismatic stars on the planet, takes that charm and inverts it, into a character that is all a slightly cocky performance for other people, especially his football fans and teammates. Rogen however is not just the funniest of the three, getting to show off his familiar yet well-honed chops playing a total stoner, he’s also got the most meta journey.
With his work in Steve Jobs earlier this year showcasing his sweetness and dramatic capabilities, not to mention previous work in 50/50 with Gordon-Levitt and director Jonathan Levine, Rogen’s not the same persona he was ten years ago. But we still put him in that box. His character Isaac is given the chance by his wife (the lovely Jillian Bell) to relive his younger days with all the drugs in the world, as a thank you for his support during the pregnancy. Of course, Isaac’s really freaking out about becoming a father, and his sweetly calm and grown-up demeanour is quickly eroded into the loud and fast Rogen from years before. His journey involves working through that persona and that high, to come back to being a grown-up. The whole journey makes for an interesting way for Rogen to put that part of his acting career to bed.
The Night Before (2015), directed by Jonathan Levine, is distributed in the UK by Sony Pictures Entertainment. Certificate 15.