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Not a Very Silent Night

Columbia Pictures
 101 Minutes
Rated: R
Directed by: Jonathan Levine 
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, Anthony Mackie
Night Before

It seems like only last week (actually, it was) when I was bemoaning the stereotypical rut in which many Christmas movies find themselves, rehashing an old formula, generally with little success. Leave it to Seth Rogen to shake things up. Although Rogen isn’t listed on the creative credits of The Night Before, the movie has his fingerprints all over it, at least all over the crude, drug-joke-fueled parts of it. Yet it’s exactly that typical Rogen crudity that makes the surprisingly sweet Christmas message in the movie that much more effective.


The Night Before is the story of three 30-something best buds: Ethan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), Isaac (Rogen) and Chris (Anthony Mackie). Every year on Christmas Eve, the three get together and see the sights in New York City, at least those that haven’t closed down for the holiday. It’s a ritual that began as teenagers when Ethan’s parents were tragically killed in an accident, and his friends took him out to cheer him up. The ritual involves visiting the same sights every year, including a Chinese restaurant, the giant piano at F.A.O. Schwartz (made famous in Big) and Christmas Eve karaoke at a local bar.


This year, however, promises to be their last go-around. Although Ethan is still stuck in a personal and career black hole, dressing up as an elf to serve hors d’oeuvres at a fancy Christmas party, Isaac and Chris have seemingly moved on. Isaac’s wife (Jillian Bell) is about to give birth and Chris’s NFL career and fan popularity have been rejuvenated, thanks to the steroids with which he injects himself. Still, the night promises to be memorable because Ethan has gotten three passes to the Nutcracker Ball, a legendary Christmas Eve party to end all parties, and the three amigos plan to end the night there.


Of course, the evening doesn’t go as planned. Isaac’s wife gives him a bizarrely inappropriate Christmas gift, a box filled with every illegal drug known to man and suggests he have one last blast. Coincidentally, some of Chris’s teammates ask him to pick up some marijuana for the party later that evening, so he goes to the only drug dealer he knows, the guys’ high school supplier Mr. Green (Michael Shannon). And Ethan keeps running into the ghost of romance past, his ex-girlfriend Diana (Lizzy Caplan), with whom he broke up because he was unwilling or unable to commit to her. Now, he decides he wants to get together, but she doesn’t think he’s mature enough.


The Night Before is rather loosely structured, with a series of comic encounters with various strange passersby including a woman named Grinch, who wants to spoil Chris’s evening and a couple of drunk Santa Clauses in a mood to fight. Naturally, the movie has lots and lots of drug jokes courtesy of Isaac’s stash. Some of Isaac’s escapades are hilarious, such as when he imagines the statues in the manger scene talking to him or his guilt trip while attending Midnight Mass. Others are less so, such as an extended cameo by James Franco (as himself) who shows up at the Nutcracker Ball. And Mindy Kaling is completely wasted (in the performance sense, not the intoxication sense) playing Diana’s companion for the evening who winds up fancying Franco.


The movie was directed by Jonathan Levine, who worked with Rogen and Gordon-Levitt before on 50/50. While he handles the more serious aspects of the film well, he simply doesn’t have the ability to rein in cut-ups like Rogen and Franco, who appear to be substantially improvising their lines. As a result, the comic scenes are very hit and miss. When they work, they are hilarious. When they don’t, which happens a bit too frequently, and they keep going on, they can put a damper on the movie.


If The Night Before were simply a crude Rogen buddy romp, it would probably have been thoroughly forgettable. But Levine, his screenwriters (including Rogen’s co-writer, Evan Goldberg), and the cast never lose sight of the fact that they are making a Christmas movie. Despite the fact that Rogen and Gordon-Levitt are Jewish (both the actors and their characters), there’s more of the Christmas spirit here than in last week’s totally ersatz Meet the Coopers. These guys aren’t just three sex-and-drug addled guys out for a fling; they are genuinely caring guys with major problems that, in the true spirit of Christmas movies, they try to work out during the course of an unusual evening.


So, Isaac has to deal with his anxiety about becoming a father. Chris has to face the fact that his NFL career is nearing its end and evaluating what fame really means to him. And Ethan has to grow up, period. Along the way towards enlightenment, the three get some help from some unlikely sources, including Miley Cyrus, who does a duet of “Wrecking Ball” with Gordon-Levitt, and a couple of real surprise characters. The audience probably won’t have any trouble figuring out how this movie will end, but how it gets there is rather unusual.


As often happens in Seth Rogen’s movies, The Night Before manages to pull in an odd ensemble cast, but a couple of the performances stand out. Michael Shannon is having a banner year with an Oscar-bait performance in 99 Homes and a solid supporting role in Freehold, and he manages to make his character a lot deeper than he first seems. And it’s always great to see, or in this case hear, Tracy Morgan as the narrator.


I honestly don’t think The Night Before would have worked nearly as well if the movie jettisoned the R-rated drug humor and sex references and went instead for a more family-friendly version. The film would easily have jumped the shark into maudlin sentimentality (an obvious possibility when the movie is based on two teenagers befriending a third whose parents have died). But it’s hard to accuse a movie of being too sentimental when it features Seth Rogen throwing up in a church or getting a cocaine nosebleed that drips into a woman’s drink. How much you wind up liking The Night Before will probably depend on how funny you think these two aforementioned Rogen drug-inspired bits are. But even if you, like me, find them a bit excessive, you’d have to be a real Scrooge not to buy into the overall vibe of The Night Before.


Read other reviews of The Night Before:


The Night Before (2015) on IMDb