Nutshell: Who’da thunk that a film about three guys who can’t seem to stop acting like children would be such a grownup treat? Gordon-Levitt, Rogen and Mackie deliver performances that are funny and heartfelt. Director/writer Jonathan Levine delivers a film that goes beyond stupid stoner clichés and digs into universal truths about friendship and growing up. Ho ho go. Grade: B+
“It’s harder to stay friends when you’re older…you have so much of your own shit going on.”
Well, ’tis the season y’all. No, it’s not Thanksgiving yet. But each year it creeps up a little earlier, tick by tick. So why not give in and haul out a little holly? Full disclosure here; I wasn’t particularly looking forward to this film. I feared the sloppy, haphazard stoner brofest of This Is The End and Your Highness. You know, the story about how thirty-somethings who should at least attempt halfway decent adulting instead try to cling to the “high schoolers with a real I.D.” hijinks that by this time are just embarrassing. (Not to mention tedious for any filmgoer over the age of 21.) Don’t get me wrong, a little of the ol’ stupid for stupid’s sake is a hoot (see: This Is The End). But this genre can fall into overkill fast. WAY Too many references to how getting baked is hee-lay-ree-ous, nudity thrown in only for shock value, and the amazing insta-high movie drugs seem to give everybody can send a stoner film spiraling around the drain.
Luckily, The Night Before manages to skip past the worst parts of the genre and instead pairs the idea of getting away from your troubles with guys who are actually attempting to climb up out of their extended childhoods. Sure, they’re either failing or avoiding the issue at the start of the film, but these aren’t random Bill & Ted stoners here. Our three guys — father-to-be Isaac (Seth Rogen), football up-and-comer Chris (Anthony Mackie) and sad sack Ethan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) — are clinging to a holiday tradition that has passed them by, but they don’t know it yet. Isaac and Chris have an inkling, and have tried to stop it for years…but Ethan, who lost his parents on a Christmas years ago, keeps pulling them into their yearly holiday fest. Each year, they’ve tried to top it off with a visit to the “it’s amazing because you haven’t heard of it” party, the Nutcracker Ball. Time’s a-wastin’ though, as this is the year the three have decided to end their annual holidayness. Will they get to the Ball this year? Um, what do you think?
Two things help The Night Before become more than the sum of its parts; a cast that go beyond the page to really dig into their characters, and a writer/director (Jonathan Levine) who adds just the right touch of reality in-between the slapstick. This film uses the stoner/slacker tropes to build up its primary message; sustaining a friendship when you’re an adult is hard work, and sometimes you have to let your friendships become more than what they once were, or they’ll fade away. That’s how this film manages to resonate with folks like me who don’t partake. Who can’t understand what it means to see friendships flounder as people grow up/move away/add to their families? What adult hasn’t had to make the decision to change what they do, either for themselves or because other obligations creep in?
As for that cast, The Night Before is a cool mix of actors who can switch it up easily. Rogen and Gordon-Levitt started with the funny, but have proved themselves with dramatic roles. Their ability to turn on a dime works well here, especially for Gordon-Levitt’s Ethan, who suffered Batman-level trauma at the deaths of his parents (am I the only one thinking of his role in The Dark Knight Rises?) Ilana Glazer, Mindy Kaling, Lizzy Caplan, and Michael Shannon play various roles that I won’t spoil here…but I do have to drop one [SPOIILER ALERT]: it’s just not a Seth Rogen stoner movie without James Franco. Oh, and Miley has a pop-in too, wearing an outfit that I will be lusting after for many Christmases to come.
Banging randos in the bathroom. Trying to work off your shrooms high by chasing ’em with coke. Seeing tentacles at holiday dinner…and way too much when you inadvertently pick up a friend’s cell phone. There’s a nice balance of crude humor here, but Levine knows when to rein it in. Keeping the focus on friendship and letting the stoner chips fall where they may makes this film delightfully watchable, be it Christmas, Hanukkah, or the Fourth of July.