Jonathan Levine is a misunderstood filmmaker.
Who is Jonathan Levine, I assume you ask? He's the director and one of the writers of the uniquely ridiculous The Night Before, a movie that is already being- in my opinion- misunderstood by much of the critical world.
This isn't the first time this has happened to Levine. His outstanding cancer comedy drama (can-com-dram?) 50/50 was well reviewed but largely ignored during its theater release; his zombie romantic comedy (zom-rom-com?) Warm Bodies attracted audiences that enjoyed the movie but didn't recognize its deeper artistic flourishes. Levine is a singular filmmaker who loves to play with genres to make quite singular films. No studio ever seems to know how to sell them; few critics seem to know how to receive them.
The Night Before has been marketed a typical raunchy comedy with a Christmas twist. Some of these elements definitely exist, but that's far from a fair description of the film. Levine's biggest strength is not blending genres, but naturally mixing humor and heart with beautiful results. Yes, this is an inappropriate Christmas comedy: hilarious, to be sure, but even more so it's a shining example of how to structure a movie and develop emotional arcs.
This future Christmas classic (ok, probably not, but a cinephile can dream) begins with a thankfully alive and well Tracy Morgan narrating the story of three best friends. As young adults, Isaac (Seth Rogen) and Chris (Anthony Mackie) begin a tradition of raucously carousing around New York City on Christmas Eve in order to cheer up the recently orphaned Ethan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt).
The tradition lasts many Christmas Eves- until Isaac is about to start a family, Chris is a famous football star, and Ethan is doing neither of these things and less. Thus, Chris and Isaac decide to end the tradition with one last insane night and help ease Ethan into adulthood, not knowing they'll be facing their own personal struggles on the way.
It's obvious from the get-go that Levine is putting a direct focus on character development. The members of the trio all have their own respective issues to process through, and their drug-fueled night will most certainly force them to do so. The movie's only real weakness is in the setup: while The Night Before takes care in initially constructing these emotional arcs, the first 30 minutes of the movie are somewhat lacking in comedy. Its opening is intermittently fun at best, but the thematic pieces it sets up pay off hugely later on.
Amidst all the Christmas Eve debauchery, Levine wants to tell a heartwarming and bittersweet story about what happens to friendships when adulthood is imminent. This story doesn't dig much deeper than face value, but it's intentionally drawn so to give it a decidedly Christmas-y sentiment. It's sweet in its obviousness.
There are a number of genuinely relatable moments littered throughout The Night Before, and the film is paced so expertly that they never feel intrusive. Whenever the movie isn't busy injecting Christmas cheer into your adulthood crises, it's damn hysterical.
Seth Rogen's performance alone is worth the price of admission. Before the Christmas Eve tradition begins, Isaac's wife gives him a box of "every drug in the whole world" that she found on Craigslist. Naturally, Isaac consumes every single drug in the box over the course of the movie. Rogen's antics while on every drug known to man are endlessly hilarious- especially when sexting is involved.
Otherwise, The Night Before oscillates seamlessly between grounded humor, crazy setpieces, references to classic Christmas movies, and impressively handled celebrity cameos. Other than the first 30 minutes, I was laughing hard throughout: if the comedy isn't outrageous, it's well written and subtle. If it's not instantly quotable, it's visually memorable. And Michael Shannon plays a mysterious drug dealer named Mr. Green. Need any more convincing?
It may not be a go-to Christmas classic in years to come, but this is another unique vision from Jonathan Levine/Seth Rogen/Joseph Gordon-Levitt that you should not pass up. Don't ignore The Night Before and let it be another forgotten success like 50/50.