'Night Before' a Jolly Jaunt Through Holidays, Second Families

Directed by: Jonathan Levine; Runtime: 101 minutes
Grade: B+

After touching upon the humor in the harrowing experience of having cancer at a young age and following that with zombies awakening from their groggy mental state, director Jonathan Levine turns his attention to something a bit more grounded with The Night Before. Sure, there's a deeper underlying purpose to the film that's built on the surrogate families we build amid hardship, among other adult themes, but the general crux of what's going on here really centers on a trio of unlikely, old friends hitting New York City on Christmas Eve and charging their way through time-honored traditions one last time. Madcap, crude humor lights up each of their stops in ways that could've easily distracted from their camaraderie and personal issues (and occasionally does), but the alternating concentration on the guys' individual issues and their dedication to the spirit of the season -- both to how it once was and how it's evolved with age -- laces the vulgarity with enough sweetness to make it a rewarding holiday adventure.

While The Night Before spreads its attention between the three guys, the spotlight largely falls on Ethan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and his reliance on the ongoing ritual of going out with his two best friends, lawyer Isaac (Seth Rogen) and professional football player Chris (Anthony Mackie), for a night of debauchery on Christmas Eve. What started as a way of coping with the sudden death of Ethan's parents had come full circle over the years, escalating into a sweater-wearing extravaganza of booze-fueled craziness and coming back down into an obligatory night of drinks for the other two guys, whose mature obligations have tamed them over the years. Reluctantly agreeing that this would be the last of their traditional shindigs, Ethan finds a way of locating tickets to the most coveted bash in town, The Nutcracker Ball, ensuring that it'll be an evening they're not likely to forget any time soon. Sporting ugly sweaters and packing plenty of contraband, the trio embark on what's assured to be a wild sendoff ... and, hopefully, the start of a new, rewarding period for Ethan.

Early on, the almost mythic nature of the Nutcracker Ball and the changing relationship between the three guys give The Night Before the feel of a surreal, sentimental Christmas tale, a final journey into the jubilance of their youth before the three guys well and truly grow up. Similarly to how he handled both 50/50 and Warm Bodies, director Levine balances out playful vulgarity with earnest dramatic tones, something that's easy to emphasize when surrounded by Ethan's stunted reality due to the death of his parents. Joseph Gordon-Levitt wears that melancholy temperament well, similarly to his roles in 50/50 and 500 Days of Summer, evening out Ethan's enthusiasm for the holiday with a rational, quietly dejected grasp on how his friends' lives have changed over the years and how his own hasn't progressed -- either professionally and romantically -- due to his heavy mental space. When paired with the recognizable charms of Seth Rogen and Anthony Mackie, they produce nostalgic energy while hopping between toy stores, Chinese restaurants, and karaoke bars alongside vivacious holiday music.

There's more to The Night Before than the guys getting blitzed and causing havoc across the city, but the point when they start, uh, partaking is where the humor really kicks into gear, especially with soon-to-be father Isaac. The script's humor holds more cleverness than it initially lets on, playing around with all three guys' insecurities while amplifying their dysfunctional relationship as they seek out the "holy grail" of Christmas parties, tapping into genuine conversations about their status in life -- parenting, pro-sports prestige, and Ethan's bungled relationship with Diana (Lizzy Caplan) -- that's relatively understated in its humor. Levine interrupts their brotherly bickering with sprawling, surreal stretches of slapstick humor involving Isaac's multiple levels of altered consciousness and heaps of rambunctiously festive physical comedy, mushrooming into an enjoyably psychedelic rhythm with some zany computer wizardry -- and some surprise full-frontal nudity -- that revels in its lack of subtlety. Just when it all seems like a little much, a flicker of earnestness evens things out.

Building to the trio's arrival at the fabled Nutcracker Ball while careening between direct references to other holiday films, from Home Alone to *cough* Die Hard, The Night Before pulls together its sense of humor and sweet disposition into a hectic and distinctively warming destination for their evening. Sprinkled with cleverly-chosen supporting roles -- Michael Shannon as a sagely pot dealer; Broad City's Ilana Glazer as a tried-and-true Grinch -- and a doting dedication to bringing the characters' stories full circle, Levine's film exerts a firm grasp on what matters over the holiday season while pulling outlandish tricks out from under its sleeve. While the colorful soiree could be accused of overstaying its welcome due to forced religious gags and overzealous celebrity cameos, the excess oddly still adds to the charm of the three guys' therapeutic, often side-splitting trek toward revamping their pseudo-family bond. That The Night Before gets the feel of Christmas as right as it does within the space between a juvenile stoner comedy and a thirty-something nostalgic quest makes it easy to forgive a little yuletide indulgence.

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