“Tis’ the season” we’re told as we’re bombarded with Christmas music and red Starbucks cups right after Halloween. By the time the actual holiday comes up, we’ve had our fill of every maudlin movie and sappy special on television and find it hard to muster the enthusiasm needed for the actual act of celebrating Christmas with our respective families. In that regard, The Night Before decks our halls with enough mistletoe/marijuana to make sure we have a very happy holiday.
I can see the protesters now, crying sacrilege and blasphemy (and maybe a scene or two may prove them right), but overall they would be wrong. This is not an anti-Christmas film, it is something much more complicated than that. At its core, there is an immutable Christmas spirit that shines through this friendship that transcends friendship and feels more like family. The Night Before highlights a potentially dark side of the holidays that many times goes unexamined. When all the commercials and films emphasize the need to be close to family and blood relations on the holidays, what do you do when you have neither? A box full of drugs and exclusive rave parties might not be the answer for everyone, but The Night Before offers a refreshing, alternative take on the holidays with just the right amount of yuletide schmaltz to qualify it as a Christmas film.
The true holiday heroes of the film are the exceptional cast consisting of comedic veterans and dabblers. The charming trio of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Anthony Mackie, and Seth Rogen are the all-star team in this adventure, but they aren’t the film’s MVPs. In the slew of cable comedians, like Lizzy Caplan, Mindy Kaling, and even the outrageously talented Lorraine Toussaint, Ilana Glazer and Michael Shannon figuratively and literally saved Christmas. They each embodied iconic holiday characters from different Christmas stories. Glazer’s no-holds-barred attitude made her the perfect Grinch, while Shannon’s Dickensian representation of Jacob Marley (with a hint of Bob Marley) had us hilariously tripping to the past, future, and especially the present. The almost mandatory surprise cameos are a gift all their own, but you’ll have to unwrap those yourself.
Director and one of the four writers of the film Jonathan Levine, attempts to juggle somber elements with howling humor, but the outcome is less successful than his previous attempt. 50/50 successfully tempered grim seriousness with an underscore of comedy. Their main focus in 50/50 was to use the concise amounts of humor to symbolize hope throughout the film. The Night Before reverses the formula and turns the bleak moments in the film into pebbles being thrown into a sea of silliness. The ripples they cause may echo through the film, but they ultimately dissipate between the punchlines.
The film has the emotional depth of a Charlie Brown Christmas special, where you do feel momentary melancholy, but ultimately the hilarity steamrolls any feelings of sadness that have been building up to that point. That being said, the story isn’t as strong as the amusingly vulgar jokes and gags that all but make up the film. The quantity of writers involved in the screenplay suggests they probably each contributed more to the individual jokes than the overall story. The story in many ways is your typical stoner adventure comedy, only with minor alterations to make it holiday themed. This film is not unlike the previous films this group of actors have made, but what you have to admire is their consistency. They may not excel on any philosophical or technical levels, but damn are they charming and able to hit a punchline with deadly accuracy.
Luckily, you’re not seeing The Night Before for an overabundance of sentiment, so the fact that it never fully reaches any emotional peaks doesn’t bother you by the time the credits are rolling. You’ll leave the theater with a newfound preparedness for the holiday that is still over a month away, a greater respect for Michael Shannon in a comedic outlet, and a series of quotable lines and dirty jokes to share with the family and friends.
RATING: ★★★★★★★ (7/10 stars)