Much as we might love our parents and siblings and crazy Aunt Phyllis and her 20 cats, it’s often the families we create throughout our lives of close, trusted friends that come to define our adult lives most profoundly.
That’s certainly the case in Jonathan Levine’s The Night Before, a festive tale that mixes in a little bit (or a lot) of The Hangover, some surreal, tongue-in-cheek supernatural courtesy of a riff on Dicken’s A Christmas Carol, and the kind of mawkish but heartfelt sentimentality usually reserved for Hallmark’s 25 Days of Christmas efforts (these guys do it way better).
And against all odds, it mostly works.
Not perfectly mind you, with some of the wilder elements held in check when they really should have been allowed to let loose like a narrative runaway sleigh, and odd tonal shifts and scenes that don’t necessarily segue neatly into each other.
What it does capture perfectly however, and what forms the heart-and-soul of this most unusual, and yet in some ways very usual of Christmas films, is the closeness that comes from bonds formed with friends who have been there through thick and thin.
Perhaps a little more thin these days than thick but by and large, and especially when it mattered 14 years ago, Ethan Miller (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), Isaac Greenberg (Seth Rogen, who co-wrote with frequent collaborator Evan Goldberg) and Chris Roberts (Anthony Mackie) have been there for each other.
Following the tragically unexpected death of Ethan’s parents at the hands of a drunk driver mere days before Christmas in 2001, the festive season is looking a whole lot less cheery and eggnog-fuelled than it once did.
Enter Isaac and Chris who decide that they must rescue Ethan from his grief-stricken funk and take him out for a night to remember, one defined by ugly Christmas sweaters, karaoke, playing tunes on the giant “Big” piano at FAO Schwarz and the tantalising prospect that this year, THIS YEAR, they will get tickets to the mysterious, sought-after Nutcracker Ball.
“The craziest Christmas party ever” does the trick, and Ethan is rescued from the mire of loss and holds fast to his two close childhood friends, all too aware they are now his family and always will be.
Fast forward 14 years however and Isaac, married to the sweetly raunchy and now heavily-pregnant Betsy (Jillian Bell), who happily sources a carefully-curated box of drugs for her husband’s latest big night out, and and Chris, a big time football star with a massive, all-consuming social media profile, are wondering if it isn’t time to move on.
Ethan has reluctantly accepted that the night that has come to define not simply his festive season but his life is about to have its last hurrah, and so even though he is mourning the end to his relationship to Betsy’s good friend Diana (Lizzy Caplan), sets off with his two closest friends for the inevitable brew of crazy karaoke, viral video-initiating keyboard dancing and sweaters so loud they’ll like keep the neighbours up past midnight mass.
As is the way of these things, and pretty much any movie crafted by Rogen and Goldberg, things do not quite go according to plan and the night starts going crazily off the rails with a series of incidents that include Isaac accidentally swapping phones with Diana’s BFF Sarah (Mindy Kaling), and receiving some very revealing pics from her hook-up James (James Franco), Chris being robbed by a lustful “fan” (Ilana Glazer) and Ethan being bashed up by Santa in stereo.
And repeated trips to see the mysterious weed-dealer Mr. Green (Michael Shannon), a man who defined the boys’ high school years drug use and who seems able to impart visions of Christmas past, present and future with just a puff of the ganja.
It all promises to be gloriously, crazily over the night and to a reasonably enjoyable point it is; oddly however, rather than letting loose the tinsel-draped hounds of Christmas out-of-control, each whacked-out element is given a brief moment to shine before the film moves on to its next raunchy, hilarious set piece.
Rather than sinking wholly and solely into its wilder moments which includes Jewish Isaac’s rather unconventional, high-on-drugs experience of midnight mass, and the much-longer-for, and finally realised visit by all three men to the Nutcracker Ball which on paper at least is every bit as legendary as they believed it to be, The Night Before hangs back, amusing with witty dialogue, some hilariously offbeat ideas and raunchy sentimentality but not quite nailing its initial surreal festive night nuttiness.
Even so, what it does so, and does very well, is give us a good old dose of rich Christmas moralising and emotional oomph that doesn’t sink under the weight of its treacleness.
It comes close sometimes sure but mostly it nimbly leaps aside helped by some subversive dialogue – Ethan and Diana’s scene where he compares meeting her parents to various sexual positions; it actually kinda works much as you’d think it possibly couldn’t – a wink and nod and some left-of-field reveals that add some unusual zing to what could have been a bland “… and everyone lives happily ever after” ending.
Lessons are learned by all yes, and the three men appreciate anew that their bonds are tight and always will be – they’re family after all and you don’t switch that kind of emotional intimacy off or really move on from it – and your heart is warmed by the sense that whatever life throws at us, the good things we get from close, family-like friends will never lose their hold on us (even if we mistakenly think it’s time they did).
The Night Before mostly balances this expected Christmas moralising with raunchy, silly humour and a wacky, goofy elements to create one of the more unconventional Christmas movies out there.