Magic is in the air in The Night Before, and not just the elevated sense of holiday magic that tends to permeate these Christmas-themed movies. You know the type – angels and reindeer and celestial conveniences accompanied by the sound of jingle bells as the wind blows all around. Although there’s plenty of that in the movie, too – all that and magic marijuana. But the magic in The Night Before extends from the narrative and into the filmmaking, which is every bit as joyfully anarchic, pleasantly transgressive, and sneakily self-reflective as we have to expect from this particular filmmaking team.
Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg are the producers, who are responsible for Superbad, Pineapple Express, This Is the End, and The Interview. Goldberg also contributed to the screenplay. The co-writer and director is Jonathan Levine, whose style is singular but who was ushered into this quasi-fraternity when he directed 50/50. After nearly a decade of mining similar territory over and over again – a group of dudes unwittingly thrust into a high-concept scenario, resulting in an explosion of genre-shifting hysteria – one might think the material would eventually start to feel stale or redundant. But when a classical-era filmmaker mines the same obsessions in film after film, we label that filmmaker an “auteur.” What Rogen, Goldberg, Levine, and their ilk have mounted is, frankly, no different – it’s just that they’re obsessions are weed, parties, pop culture savagery, and the sneaking onslaught of maturity. It’s a quite modern take on the traditional theory. These guys are auteurs of rollicking transgression.
The Night Before shifts the party under the bright lights, falling snow, and inherent cheer of the holiday season. And as ever, this particular party is an intentional vortex of willful immaturity and unexpected witty invention – simultaneously embracing traditions and busting clichés, co-opting “Christmas magic” in beautifully corrupt ways but still telling a legitimate story about real characters, clinging to youthful glory days while acknowledging that said days are swiftly coming to a close.
Ethan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) doesn’t seem willing to accept that very adult reality; for him, Christmas Eve is that most sacred of wild partying nights, having nursed a decade-long tradition of night-before-Christmas debauchery with his two best friends, Isaac (Rogen) and Chris (Anthony Mackie). The ritual was instituted as therapy after Ethan tragically lost both his parents (which is obviously the buried reason for his attachment), but this year is intended to be the trio’s last pre-Christmas throwdown, now that both Ethan’s friends have transitioned into a more mature phase of their lives.
Make no mistake – they are secretly struggling, too. Isaac is married with a baby on the way, a thought that secretly terrifies him, so much so that he eventually records a drug-fueled video message cursing his unborn child. Chris is an NFL veteran who has only recently shot to stardom… thanks to daily PED use. Christmas Eve provides a canvas on which the guys’ shortcomings are laid bare, even as the night leads them on an odyssey of random adventures, dire encounters, and unfortunate drug trips. The heart of the movie – directed with brash assuredness and written with equal parts stubborn puerility and razor-sharp self-reflective Gen-X insight – lives in the delicious contradictions of its makeup. So we get a raucous comedy that tackles the serious issues that plague its aging wannabe frat boy protagonists. And in between its moments of melancholy self-realization, there are extended gags about dick-pic sexts and incessant drug use, priceless throwaway references to Home Alone, Die Hard, and other seasonal standards, plus cameos galore, all beautifully set up and perfectly placed.
You get where I’m going, right? The Night Before is kind of a Christmas miracle that no one asked for. But it’s precisely the kind of inspired, balls-to-the-wall madness we should’ve expected coming from this crew.