I went into The Night Before expecting to hate it, and ended up loving it (mostly). One of its most refreshing elements, especially for a movie that’s being marketed as, and mostly is, sort of a bros comedy, is that it treats its female characters like actual people. Add in the fact that it’s also a Christmas comedy, and its adult-like depiction of relationship dynamics seems damn-near revolutionary.
I’d been dreading seeing it, at least partly because it was a Christmas comedy. I have a theory that the types of movies we normally have foisted on us during the Christmas season can at least partly be explained by Christmas itself. Businesses openly exploit a Christian holiday (which itself openly co-opted a pagan festival), in order to sell us stuff, and because most of us enjoy presents, time off, feasting and family, we mostly pretend to go along with all the bullsh*t sloganeering. We’ve been effectively conditioned to suppress our gag reflexes on Christmas, and filmmakers know they can force feed us manipulative cheese we wouldn’t normally get within 10 feet of. It’s not outdated garbage, it’s tradition! Classic rebrand dodge.
Case in point: Love Actually, an inexplicably beloved Christmas movie whose badness is eclipsed only by its capacity to inspire worse movies (New Year’s Eve, Valentine’s Day, probably the upcoming Mother’s Day — they don’t even bother with titles anymore, they just name them after the release date). One of the reasons Love Actually is so bad, aside from the fact that it’s the tonal equivalent of an anchovy breakfast stew, is that virtually every one of its vignettes involves some lurky, lovesick male proclaiming his previously un-voiced attraction through some over-the-top gesture of public embarrassment — say, showing up at her house with hired carolers and a pile of notecards, bringing her restaurant to a grinding halt, chasing her through the airport and gallantly getting arrested, giving a bizarre political speech severing your country’s ties with the U.S., etc. At which point, that character “wins” love like it’s a carnival prize. It’s all about some grand, obnoxious gesture brief enough to fit in a YouTube pre-roll ad. Love Actually is like a diamond commercial disguised as a movie.
And to top it all off, they then had the balls to call it “Love Actually,” which sounds like something a Reddit commenter might would say while pushing his glasses up his nose and tipping his fedora. “Love, Actually, m’Lady.”
Phew. Anyway, my point is, Love Actually is emblematic of the kind of hollow, slogan-based sentimentality you usually find in Christmas movies. [Spoilers for The Night Before to follow.]
Which is partly why The Night Before is so refreshing. In the film, Ethan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), we learn through expository dialogue, has blown it with an ex named Diana (Lizzy Caplan), by refusing to meet her parents (the Guy Who Can’t Commit!). Thus far, that’s a thoroughly slick, somewhat cliché plot point (though JGL and Lizzy Caplan is a refreshingly believable and age-appropriate romantic pairing who I would definitely pay to watch have sex). It’s when Ethan tries to get her back that The Night Before truly shines. With everyone pressuring him to make some grand, romantic gesture (probably they’ve been watching too much Love Actually), Ethan hijacks a Miley Cyrus concert and asks Diane to marry him on stage.
If past holiday movies were any guide, you would expect their story line to end there — Ethan has atoned for his boorishness by embarrassing Diane publicly, now he gets the prize and they live happily ever, driving off into the sunset in a Lexus with a big red bow on top. Instead, Diana, an actual human being capable of independent thought, responds in the negative, the gist of it being, “We haven’t spoken in three months, are you f*cking crazy?”
In another storyline, Isaac (Seth Rogen) and his wife Betsy (Jillian Bell from Workaholics, another wonderful casting choice), are about to have a child. And he’s freakin’ out, man. High on mushrooms and cocaine, Isaac records a cellphone video “to his future self,” screaming his fears about the terrible things he daydreams of doing to his “c*nt baby” and whatnot. Again, it’s a fairly familiar set-up. But whereas you’d usually expect a film like this to turn the video into a MacGuffin that threatens to break up the relationship — Don’t let her see your secret heart! Girls would never understand! — in The Night Before‘s case, Bell’s character ends up seeing the video. And when she does? She laughs. She’s relieved that her husband has some of the same fears she does, even though he’s been hiding them from her. Women: capable of both humor and empathy. Who would’ve thought?
(There’s also a storyline about Anthony Mackie’s character admitting to his mom that he’s been doing steroids that I think was trying to say the same thing, but it’s so strange that I’m not going to try to work it into my thesis.)
Nonetheless, the message, if a movie where Seth Rogen dribbles blood from a cocaine nosebleed into a martini glass can be said to have a “message,” is clear: If you like someone, you should talk to them. Like, be honest about your feelings and stuff. A sentiment that obvious showing up in a mainstream Christmas comedy probably shouldn’t feel so subversive, but it does.
Judging by its 65 percent RottenTomatoes rating and lackluster box office, I don’t expect The Night Before will get much credit for any of this (do not hold your breath for a Best Screenplay Oscar). It feels like the same old same old in so many ways (the drugs scene, the slow-motion bro walk scene, the gay-but-not-really-gay jokes, etc.) that it’s easy to miss the subtler ideas. But I tend to think these subtle rebellions are more valuable precisely because the people doing it aren’t shouting it from the rooftops. They’re not trying to be different, just doing things the way they think they should be done.
Vince Mancini is a writer and comedian living in San Francisco. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the UPROXX network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.