It’s that time of year again, dubbed “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year” in song, a time for family and friends to gather and enjoy each others’ company (in most cases). And it’s also that time of year when Hollywood will give us a few movies set during the holiday season. We’ve already had the poorly recieved Love the Coopers hit the local cineplex, and this week The Night Before arrives bringing with it the spirit of Christmas past … specifically A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas.
The Night Before tells the story of three long-time friends, Ethan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), Isaac (Seth Rogen) and Chris (Anthony Mackie). They’ve known each other since they were kids, but when Ethan’s parents were killed in a car accident on Christmas Eve fourteen years ago, the three have bonded together even more and have always spent that night together partying to keep Ethan’s mind off of his loss.
Now the guys are grown-ups, Isaac has a wife and a baby due any minute, Chris is a big time athlete (at least in his mind) more famous for his social media skills, and Ethan … is a loner. He had a relationship with Diana (Lizzy Caplan) that ended badly but he still loves her deeply and hopes that she will come around and give him another chance. But with age and responsibilities, the guys decide that this is their last year together on Christmas Eve.
The only way to go out with a bang is to score tickets to the legendary and mysterious Nutcracker Ball, except none of them know how or where to get the elusive tickets. Ethan, working as an elf for a caterer, discovers three tickets in the pocket of a coat someone has checked at the party, so he quits his gig right there and tells the guys they have a big night ahead. Isaac’s very understanding wife even gives him a lovely gift to help enjoy his final night of partying – a box of drugs she got off of Craigslist!
Isaac immediately goes for the ‘shrooms to get the night started and immediately starts freaking out, deciding some cocaine will even him out. It only makes him worse. Chris needs to score some weed to impress one of his teammates whom is referred to as The Messiah (this nickname will play into a very funny gag later in the film), so they contact the local dealer, Mr. Green (Michael Shannon) to get what they need … which is stolen, so they call Mr. Green again. In fact, Mr. Green seems to pop up in various places when the guys need him most. Hmmmmm. The night brings a series of hilarious misadventures leading up to the Nutcracker Ball, some funny celebrity cameos, and one very awkward moment for Ethan and Diana. Can this holiday be saved, or will the guys’ last big night be a big dud?
Well, it’s a comedy, so you can bet it’s not going to end on a terribly down note. I expected The Night Before to just be a riff on the Harold & Kumar movies with the guys being stoned all night and just going from one wacky scene to the next, but if you’re really familiar with past Christmas movies you’ll pick up hints of A Christmas Carol and It’s a Wonderful Life subtly haunting the story, particularly where the Mr. Green character is concerned.
The film nicely ties together several elements when the guys get separated at one point with Chris tracking the “fan” (who has a Grinch fetish) who stole his weed and Isaac trying to find Sarah (Mindy Kaling), with whom he accidentally swapped cell phones and is now receiving texts and pictures from some guy names James. Isaac is so stoned he starts texting James back telling him how impressed he is with the pictures of his … um … manhood (and yes, the movie is rated R so you do see the pictures in question). Isaac does finally find Sarah … and James.
By the end, even with all of the drug humor, inappropriate photos, and bickering amongst friends and family, the spirit of the holiday fixes everything and may even leave you feeling that holiday buzz by the time the credits roll. I know I was ready to go home and decorate the house, and that’s what a good holiday movie should do. I think the last time I was that filled with the spirit of the season after a movie was with Elf.
Some of the moments experienced by the guys may be a bit outlandish, but the winning cast makes it all believable. Michael Shannon, in particular, is a standout. If I had any complaints about the movie, it’s that Isaac goes from zero to 120 in the space of seconds. It would have been nice to see his high gradually increase as the night progressed. But Rogen pulls it off and has some of the funniest moments of the film. Director Jonathan Levine keeps the film rolling smoothly, not allowing Ethan’s more somber moments to grind things to a halt. For something that could have just degraded into a drugged out mess, the movie stays on an even keel from start to finish.
By the end, The Night Before will remind you that the holidays are about magic, love, family and friends … a feeling we need to keep in our hearts throughout the year. Not a bad message for a stoner comedy.