Great Christmas films are always about family. Whether it’s the traditional soppy Santa Claus tale à la Miracle on 34th Street, Will Ferrel trying to reunite with his dad in Elf or John McClane blasting through Eurotrash terrorists to get back to his wife in Die Hard, at these films’ core remains a deeply conservative but undeniably touching emphasis on family unity.
The Night Before, the latest from Superbad duo Evan Goldberg/Seth Rogen, is far from family-friendly. Whether it’s Anthony Mackie fucking Ilana Glazer in a grimy bathroom, Michael Shannon playing an especially-dubious drug dealer or Seth Rogen tripping on an ill-advised combo of molly, weed, ecstasy, cocaine and ‘shrooms, the comedy well and truly earns its MA rating. But beneath all the raunch beats a warm-hearted, conventional tale of families coming together.
Your response to the film will therefore likely be dependent on your tolerance for both crude gags and seasonal schmaltz, but I personally had a lot of fun with the film, which simultaneously appealed to my coarse sense of humour and lingering love of Christmas in all its over-commercialised glory. It helps that there’s a stellar cast navigating this sleigh ride; in addition to the core trio of Mackie, Rogen and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, concluding their tradition of debaucherous Christmas Eves with one last celebration, there’s a bevy of talented comedians like Mindy Kaling, Nathan Fielder and Tracy Morgan. Plus, Michael Shannon is great (as always).
Like most Goldberg/Rogen joints, not all of the jokes hit the mark; for every hilarious dick pic exchange, there’s an ill-judged Santa fight (and you’ll need a lot of patience for product placement). Thankfully, unlike their previous film, The Interview, the laugh-per-minute ratio is pretty strong, allowing you to forgive the less-successful experiments.
The Night Before’s references are out of control, with tributes to classic Christmas tales – from Dickens to Macaulay Culkin – jumbled up with joyous musical performances: “Runaway”, “Christmas in Hollis”, “Wrecking Ball.” These guys know the value of just enjoying a pop song on its own merits (see also: the climax of This Is The End). I also appreciate the film’s restraint when it comes to clichés; it typically recognises when a joke is overplayed, and pivots away after earning a laugh rather than lingering. In an increasingly-dour awards season, it’s refreshing to have a film that’s just unapologetically fun.
Of course, there’s more to the film than weed and dick jokes. Director-cowriter Jonathan Levine (of 50/50) wraps a carefully-judged – if over-emphasised, as is these films’ wont – reflection on familial anxieties around The Night Before’s brightly-coloured packaging. Levitt’s character arc is driven by his desire to rekindle his romance with ex-girlfriend Lizzy Caplan, but it’s fundamentally grounded in unresolved grief of his parents’ death, manifested as a fear of commitment/traditional family. Rogen’s escalating freakout proves to be as much about the impending birth of his first child as much as the mountain of drugs he’d consumed. There’s nothing especially original here, but I’m not sure it’s reasonable to expect originality from a Seth Rogen Christmas movie.
Anthony Mackie is left out in the cold somewhat, though. The traditional Goldberg/Rogen film is built on bromance, and the screenplay here can’t quite incorporate a third member into its narrative. Mackie’s convincingly charismatic as a successful athlete – whose success is tied to steroid abuse – but his comic chemistry combines poorly with Rogen and Gordon-Levitt. He’s relegated into the straight man role alongside Gordon-Levitt, which tends to drag down the film’s comic moments. It doesn’t help that the film can’t decide if Mackie’s character arc should be built around his discomfort with his ill-gotten fame – seen when he visits his mum’s apartment – or him growing away from his childhood friends. Maybe it would’ve worked better if they’d saved the steroid stuff for a third act plot twist?
Such – relatively minor – problems aside, it’s easy to imagine The Night Before slotting into a pile of Christmas DVDs to watch on Christmas Eve – perhaps sandwiched in between Elf and Die Hard.