Looking at writer/director Jonathan Levine’s body of work, one will notice little consistency where genre is concerned. His feature debut was the slasher film All The Boys Love Mandy Lane, but he hasn’t made a similar film since – evolving his eye with projects like the cancer drama/stoner comedy 50/50 or the zombie romance Warm Bodies. As diverse as his filmography is, however, what really ties all of Levine’s work together is his tremendous sense of tone – knowing exactly when to make you laugh and when to make you feel.
This is a quality that the filmmaker blissfully once again brings to his latest film, The Night Before - which not only stands as the funniest movie of the year, but at its core also carries a heartfelt and truthful look at how friendships evolve in the face of time, maturity, and advancement into new stages of life.
Wearing a deep appreciation for Martin Scorsese’s After Hours on its sleeve, the comedy is almost entirely set over the course of one night, following a group of three men as they have one final holiday hurrah together. For years, Isaac (Seth Rogen) and Chris (Anthony Mackie) have spent Christmas Eve with their best friend, Ethan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) – an annual custom since Ethan’s parents were killed in a car crash – but their diverging lives leave them celebrating one last time. They’re all set up to make it an epic night, finally acquiring tickets to an extremely exclusive party they’ve wanted to attend for years, but of course there are many obstacles put in their way – as in Christmas tradition they must face “ghosts” of the past, present, and future.
High-concept holiday comedies are a dime a dozen, but what sets The Night Before apart is a real commitment to strong character development and arcs for the leads – all of which bring something different and special to the plot as a whole. Ethan is a lonely, lazy mess who miraculously sees an opportunity to repair one of his biggest mistakes when he learns that his dejected ex-girlfriend Diana (Lizzy Caplan) is heading to the same party as him. Chris, an NFL player who has been getting his career off the ground with the help of steroids, finds a special chance to get in good with the star of his team by scoring some pot. And finally, Isaac is on the verge of becoming a father for the first time, and given full license to have a crazy night by his wife (Jillian Bell) – who even goes as far as to give him a box full of illegal drugs. The film lives feeding into these individual plots – each tapped off with a hefty dose of madcap weirdness – and by the end you’re not only exhausted from laughing so much, but also feel a wonderful satisfaction in the complete nature of the narrative.
The script, written by Jonathan Levine, Evan Goldberg, Kyle Hunter and Ariel Shaffir, deftly melds a fun, ridiculous Christmas adventure in conjunction with real adult issues – but the film also works with the distinct advantage of featuring some of the funniest people on the planet as part of the cast. Not only are all of the leads amazing in their own right – with Seth Rogen, Anthony Mackie and Joseph Gordon-Levitt having outstanding chemistry together - the nature of the story opens it up to having them encounter all kinds of strange and interesting characters along their journey – and that’s a setup of which the film takes full advantage. It would be doing the movie a disservice to start listing them all hear, as part of the fun is seeing them randomly pop up in the middle of a scene, but there isn’t a single one that fails to impress.
Great as the entire cast is, however, there is one actor in particular who deserves special accolade. Best known for his disturbingly penetrative stare, and authoritative presence, Michael Shannon has spent years as a powerful force in the dramatic world – but The Night Before has him putting on one of the funniest performances in years. Playing a pot dealer named Mr. Green, Shannon delivers a his classic intensity – putting all of the characters around him entirely on edge – but rounds it out with a weirdo personality liable to say just about anything at any given moment. His timing is perfection, and he is the best thing about what is otherwise an absolutely wonderful film.
I have a long and deep appreciation of the “alternative” Christmas movies – having spent many late Decembers with Die Hard, Bad Santa, and pretty much every Shane Black movie – and now The Night Before has arrived to continue and expand that delightful legacy. It’s a character-driven comedy that’s as dramatically satisfying as it is hilariously funny, all while fully capturing the spirit of the season. Plan to not only make it part of your holidays this year, but for years to come.