Saturday, December 19, 2015

The Night Before

The Night Before plays like a sort of Christmas miracle.  It's a late coming of age story for a batch of delayed adults, a film in which small scale holiday traditions battle and blend with a reluctant acceptance of traditional values. The idea of tradition is the movie's backbone, though what that means for the characters is at times unclear.  Ethan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is presented as the friend about to be left behind.  He's emotionally stunted, seems to have a string of menial jobs (we meet him as a cater waiter), dumped his girlfriend (Lizzy Caplan) because she wanted him to meet her parents, and harbors a long-term seasonal obsession with a mysterious, invite-only party called The Nutcracker Ball.  This is his last chance, the final year of an all-out holiday bacchanal with his two lifelong friends, Isaac (Seth Rogen) and Chris (Anthony Mackie).  Chris has become a successful athlete, too big to hang out inconspicuously  Isaac's wife (Jillian Bell) is about to give birth.  Each is in their own makeshift crisis of ego and expectation, prepared to cast aside childish things even as they dread the very idea of what that might mean.  So it is that when Ethan *magically* comes into three party tickets, the friends get together for a drug-fueled, debauched  Christmas odyssey.  Visions of sugar plums are replaced with psychotropic hallucinations, karaoke choreography, a wandering hipster 'Grinch' (Ilana Glazer), and something that's almost a dick-pic meet cute.
From all of this - along with a hearty dose of fairly inspired comedic blaspheming -  the crew manages to maintain a dose of holiday sentimentality that keeps the film palatable even as Isaac records a manic, coke-addled video cursing out his unborn child and the life changes it brings.  Though profane, there's a charm to each of these actors that allows us to understand the spirit of what they mean even as that's not always what they say.  As the guys run through New York on their quest to complete a long-standing checklist, they build a chaotic energy that courses through the film.  While there's something about the editing that doesn't feel quite right, the thing is a surreal kind of bright, tacky, stupid display of bad behavior that comes from a good place.  Just as Superbad reveled in a schmaltzy friendship love, The Night Before has real relationships at its center and a twisted sense of traditional storytelling.  There's a touch of A Christmas Carol here, a hint of It's a Wonderful Life, a general understanding of the way the best holiday tales weave together a seasonal sadness or sense of loss with joy and revelation.  Lessons are learned, wrongs are righted. By the time the credits roll, all is peaceful, even if we have a roving, philosophically-minded pot dealer (Michael Shannon) to thank for it.

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