The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


The Night Before

There are basically three kinds of Christmas movies: the sincere ones (Miracle on 34th Street, It's a Wonderful Life), the wacky ones (Home Alone, National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, Jingle All the Way), and the “naughty” ones (Bad Santa, A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas). Onto that last list, we can now add The Night Before, a drug-fueled romp through New York City that manages to be both extremely R-rated and touchingly sweet.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Ethan, a young man still reeling from a breakup with his girlfriend Diana (Lizzie Caplan). Ever since his parents were killed in a drunk driving accident a decade or so ago, Ethan has carried out a Christmas Eve tradition of spending time with his best friends, Isaac (Seth Rogen) and Chris (Anthony Mackie). The former's impending fatherhood and the latter's burgeoning athletic career mean that this tradition is about to come to an end. For their last big blowout, they plan to attend a super-secret exclusive holiday bash they've long heard about. The quest to find the party is complicated by Chris's constant need to feed his ego via social media, as well as by Isaac taking the stash of drugs his wife gives him as a present. As the evening progresses, Ethan runs into Diana and her friend Sarah (Mindy Kaling), which makes him start to question the reasons behind their split.

The Night Before has a lot of the humor one would anticipate from a movie starring and produced by Seth Rogen. Penises are common sources of jokes (including one hilarious bit involving pictures sent via text), and there are plenty of drug hijinks. The movie is very much on the same comic wavelength as This Is the End, Neighbors, and Pineapple Express, if perhaps not as consistently uproarious as those pictures were. Still, scenes involving Isaac's encounter with a nativity scene and Ethan's fateful meet-up with a famous person at a party generate big laughs.

Much of the comedy, though, comes from the chemistry between the actors. Rogen and Gordon-Levitt worked together previously on 50/50, so they understand each other's comic rhythms quite well. Anthony Mackie fits in perfectly, rounding out the trio in just the right way. (The three do a kooky karaoke rendition of Run-DMC's “Christmas in Hollis” that is inspiring to behold.) Caplan and Kaling, meanwhile, are more than just eye candy or generic female sidekicks. Both get funny stuff to do, and even better, they get to interact with the male leads in ways that have fun with the standard male/female dynamic. Rogen and Kaling especially get some moments together that are ingenious in their silliness. There's additionally some ace supporting work from Michael Shannon, hysterically playing against type as a weed dealer the guys are repeatedly perplexed by.

While The Night Before is funny, it wouldn't be off base to say that the more substantive moments are the best parts of the movie. Each of the men has his own little drama. Ethan lost his parents and his girlfriend, and now he fears losing his best buddies. Isaac is terrified of fatherhood and whether he will be good enough as a parent. Chris is desperate to succeed as a pro athlete, and he's not above making some questionable choices to accomplish that goal. As directed by Jonathan Levine (Warm Bodies), The Night Before uses easily identifiable situations to both generate jokes and give the story a sense of depth beyond what one might expect from a stoner comedy.

Ads for the movie made it look as though it might make jokes at the expense of Christianity and Judaism. (A shot of the drug-crazed Jewish Isaac throwing up in the aisle of a Catholic church and yelling, "We did not kill Jesus!" is a prime example.) There are some generalized gags, but never really anything disrespectful or blasphemous. The Night Before is not out to skewer the holidays, nor is it cynical about the meaning behind them. Instead, it focuses on the idea that Christmas and Hanukkah are times to come together with the people who mean the most to you, for fun, laughter, and bonding. This mission is accomplished in surprisingly affecting fashion. That you get to laugh in the process just makes the movie that much more enjoyable.

( out of four)

The Night Before is rated R for drug use and language throughout, some strong sexual content and graphic nudity. The running time is 1 hour and 41 minutes.

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