It might seem a stretch that a film only released six years ago could have already been forgotten, but The Night Before catered to such a niche audience that it was probably always destined for relative obscurity (even if only when compared to more successful Christmas comedies like Bad Santa, Elf, or Jingle All the Way). Billed as a “Christmas comedy stoner film”, The Night Before is most noteworthy for its impressive core cast, including Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, Anthony Mackie, Michael Shannon, Lizzy Kaplan, Mindy Kaling, and Jillian Bell (as well as a few celebrity cameos). Given the profile of its stars, it seems that The Night Before perhaps should be more widely remembered – or even just better acknowledged – than it actually is.
Often, with Christmas movies, expectations are relatively low. The same can ultimately be said of stoner movies, which puts The Night Before in a strong position straight out of the gate, especially when it’s led by a strong trio of actors in Gordon-Levitt, Rogen, and Mackie.
After losing his parents in a car accident, newly orphaned Ethan (Gordon-Levitt) begins a festive tradition of partying with his friends every Christmas Eve. Fast forward 14 years, and Isaac (Rogen) is preparing for fatherhood, Chris (Mackie) is a famous athlete, and Ethan reluctantly agrees that it should be the last year of their Christmas tradition. The night that ensues comes packed with Seth Rogen’s patented brand of drug-fueled inoffensive comedy, but there’s also an emotional undercurrent to it all, with the three friends attempting to navigate their relationship, which has become increasingly strained by their having grown apart.
That analysis actually feels unrepresentative of the film itself, but there is genuinely a few interesting themes at play. The problem is, though, that The Night Before doesn’t really explore any of them in any real depth. The film’s festive nature (and its status as a comedy) downplays the more serious elements of the story in favor of a consistent stream of jokes, and as much as this makes The Night Before good for a few laughs, it takes away the film’s ability to feel substantial.
Not only does The Night Before ring hollow in places, but it feels like a rehash of numerous other buddy comedies given a Christmas makeover. It plays out like the lovechild of Pineapple Express and The Hangover, but the novelty of its festive setting is just enough to save it from feeling overly derivative.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt brings a slightly more nuanced performance than his co-stars, but even this feels like it’s been recycled from other movies – he’s pining after a lost love and displaying fairly toxic behaviors (much like he was in 500 Days of Summer) and balanced comedy with sadness (like in 50/50) – although even rehashing old material, Gordon-Levitt is able to shine, particularly when he’s bolstered by his co-stars’ comedic talents.
With regards to The Night Before being a forgotten film, it’s difficult to feel too strongly either way, but that only highlights how easy the film is to forget. On the one hand, it’s far from innovative, but it does offer some solid laughs and decent entertainment value. It isn’t overly well-remembered, but all Christmas films are forgotten for 11 months of the year anyway, so the line of what constitutes forgotten is a little blurred.
What it really comes down to, though, is that The Night Before is a comedy just as entertaining as many other buddy-stoner comedies, and it’s hardly talked about at all. It’s not high art, nor does it even try to plumb any emotional depths, but it’s a fun festive experience, and deserves to be remembered just as fondly as more dramatic or family-friendly fare.
Summary: What it lacks in originality, it makes up for in boorish charm. It’s loud, it’s dumb, and it’s generally entertaining, but it’s unlikely to make it into too many people’s festive repertoire.
Highlight: Michael Shannon’s character, who is what I will diplomatically label an ‘urban pharmacist’, delivers some of the weirdest moments of the film – his soft-spoken deadpan was bizarre and brilliant.