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Non-Review Review: The Night Before

The Night Before does not always work well, but it works hard.

The tale of three unlikely best friends embarking on one final Christmas bender runs through the checklist of the modern “overgrown manchild” comedy genre elements. There is arrested development. There is adulthood beaconing. There is responsibility to be claimed. There is friendship to be fractured and ultimately strengthened. There is a great supporting cast and a number of very effectively employed cameos. All The Night Before does is to apply a layer of festive frosting atop a familiar recipe.

A star performance...?

A star performance…?

The formula has been dulled somewhat by the frequency with which it has been deployed. A lot of The Night Before feels familiar and even rote. However, there are moments of absurd clarity. The Night Before puts a surprising amount of effort into some of its more effective gags, painstakingly setting up the pins so that they might be knocked down at a later date. In particular, one of the climactic gags is the result of a great deal of careful alignment over the preceding nineties minutes, a laugh that looks cheap but is as intricately crafted as a fancy tree ornament.

The Night Before is not the most hilarious or memorable or definitive of these sorts of Apatow-esque comedies, but there is an endearing effort to it all. There is never a sense of coasting, even at points where the film leans towards the nostalgia and arrested development that it spends so much effort trying to escape.

You take my elf...  You take my elf-control.

You take my elf…
You take my elf-control.

A lot of the charm of The Night Before rests in its three leading performers. On paper, the combination of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen and Anthony Mackie seems quite strange. Rogen is perhaps the safest choice, having established himself in association with Apatow and serving as a potent creative force with partner Evan Goldberg. (Goldberg is credited on the script here.) Although Gordon-Levitt and Rogen have worked together before, to great effect in 50/50, they seem like an odd fit for a comedy like this. Similarly, Mackie is not quite a comedy performer.

One of the more interesting choices of The Night Before is the decision to cast Rogen as the straight man of the bunch; after all, Rogen has yet to appear as a major cast member in a film to be nominated for Best Picture. However, the introduction of The Night Before is careful to cast Rogen as the most responsible member of the trio. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is assigned the role of the manchild of the bunch, unwilling to grow up; Anthony Mackie plays a recent celebrity whose “social media presence is on-point” and who endorses Red Bull a lot.

Christmas dance party!

Christmas dance party!

In contrast, Rogen is cast as the loving husband who is soon to become a father. His wife affectionately describes him as her “Rock”, her “Dwayne Johnson.” Naturally, this does not last; The Night Before is a comedy, and it has a great deal of fun watching the film’s straight man become increasingly unhinged as the night progresses. It is perhaps in indication of just how much Seth Rogen’s screen persona has grown and developed over the years that he can be cast as the foil to Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Anthony Mackie.

The cast work well together. A lot of the film is carried in the easy chemistry and charm of the three leading performers. The actors do find hints of nuance and sophistication to their roles, but the most frustrating aspect of The Night Before is how familiar it all feels. The introductory scenes featuring the three leading characters all but predict their arcs; not in a sense of broad strokes or character development, but very much in a beat by beat breakdown of where each character will go at each point in the film.

XXX-Mas...

XXX-Mas…

The three leading performers are great, but the three leading characters feel very thinly sketched. However, this becomes a bigger issue when the film broadens out its focus. Lizzy Caplan has a small role as Diana, the ex-girlfriend of manchild Ethan. It quickly becomes apparent that Diana is something towards which Ethan must aspire, that he must overcome his fear of commitment and maturity in order to reconcile his feelings towards his ex-girlfriend. The problem is that Diana never quite becomes anything more than an aspirational object.

This is not to suggest that The Night Before is sexist or misogynistic or anything like that. The female characters are afforded their own agency and dynamism within the narrative; towards the end of the film, Lizzy explains that perhaps her own feelings towards Ethan are as complex as his towards her. The problem is that The Night Before does a lot of telling, rather than showing. There is never any indication of why Ethan and Diana might want to get back together, or even why they were together in the first place.

Not everybody's cup of tea...

Not everybody’s cup of tea…

It often seems like the characters in The Night Before exist primarily because the plot demands certain archetypes and arcs around which it might build its seasonal comedy. This does prevent The Night Before from making the kind of impression that allowed films like Superbad or Forgetting Sarah Marshall to become comedy classics. There is a shallowness to The Night Before that becomes apparent when the movie slows down or opts for the obligatory dramatic moments.

That shallowness is reflected in other areas as well. The Night Before might be the story of how Ethan comes to realise that he must grow up, but the film seems trapped in its own arrested development. Nostalgia is very much the name of the game here, from the use of the classic “Columbia Pictures” legend to open the film through to mid-movie game of GoldenEye 64. More than that, the references to Christmas classics come thick and fast, from Home Alone through to It’s a Wonderful Life.

Three wise men...

Three wise men…

This is more of a distraction than a serious problem, an example of the way that The Night Before lacks the nuance and clarity that defines the best of these comedies. The script compensates in a number of ways; despite the occasionally chaotic structure of a story that has the characters bouncing around New York City, the movie painstakingly and effectively sets up a number of its best jokes. Although cast as the straight man at the start of the story, Isaac’s Jewish heritage is a recurring thread that builds to best gag in the film.

This does cause its own minor problems; the comedy comes in staccato bursts rather than a steady stream, with the movie indulging more in absurd scenarios that rapid-fire punchlines. The fact that film sets up its strongest gags before allowing them to land means that The Night Before is consistently amusing but only sporadically hilarious. It is an interesting approach to the gags in the film, one which might have been better suited to a script with stronger characters and more nuanced arcs.

This is perhaps the defining attribute of The Night Before. The jokes are better constructed than the characters. That is not a fatal flaw, but it does keep the film just shy of greatness.

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2 Responses

  1. Excellent post. I will be going through a few of these issues as well..

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