America loves Christmas movies.
A quick flip over to the Hallmark Channel, which is already programming wall-to-wall made-for-TV holiday schmaltz, is evidence enough.
Soon the old standards will be rolled out, too. A Christmas Story, It's a Wonderful Life, Home Alone — they're all coming. And now there is a holiday go-to for the Apatow generation.
With The Night Before writer/director Jonathan Levine has scored the rarest of Christmas miracles: An adult-themed holiday comedy with guffaw-inducing charisma. It's an instant classic.
Playing a slightly more cheerful version of his character in the wonderful (500) Days of Summer, Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as the melancholy thirty-something Ethan. Suffering the pangs of unrequited love, Ethan's anguish amplifies as he grows apart from his two closest childhood friends.
Ethan, Isaac (Seth Rogen) and Chris Roberts (Anthony Mackie) gather for one last Christmas Eve with the boys, concluding a tradition that started after Ethan lost his parents to a drunk driver more than a decade earlier.
Together they search the city for a pop-up holiday bash that has eluded them for years: The legendary Nutcracker Ball.
Balancing work, family and friends has not been easy for the lads, and Isaac and Chris are ready to move on from the holiday tradition of boozing and romping they think they have outgrown. Ethan is more reluctant.
The struggling 33-year-old starts the film working part-time for a caterer, rudderless and hung up on an old love, Diana (played charmingly by Lizzy Caplan). The set-up for a formulaic romantic plot is there, but The Night Before resists.
Instead it plays with genre expectations, and offers knowing winks to its competition (Home Alone, especially) but it is rarely predictable. Even when you think it will be, it isn't — and then it is again, but not really.
Rogen amps up the energy to play Isaac, who for pharmaceutical reasons spends most of the film bug-eyed, paranoid and very, very sweaty. A Jewish man married into his wife Betsy's (Jilian Bell) Catholic family, Isaac lives this hilarious nightmare: A bad mushroom trip at midnight mass.
Bell is stuck playing the straight woman, but her deadpan head-tilting scores every time.
At first it seems Chris, an emerging pro athlete, is the most together of the triplet, but soon we learn he worries about acceptance among his peers, and that his new-found on-court success may have been the result of "performance enhancement."
The Night Before's hilarity is bolstered by strong supporting work.
With a performance that will stick with you long after the stray popcorn has been swept from the aisles, Michael Shannon plays drug-dealing seer Mr. Green, who watches over (and maybe orchestrates) the starring triumvirate's wild night.
The trademark intensity and typical weirdness that have served him so well in dramatic roles work perfectly for Shannon here. I don't want to give too much away about his position in the film, so I'll just say this: Mr. Green is unforgettable, and like the cigar-smoking old Uncle Lewis (William Hickey) in National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, we will be quoting him forever.
Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. And he is played by the hilarious Tracey Morgan, whose spare opening voiceover sets the take-no-prisoners tone that makes The Night Before the most provocative holiday movie since Bad Santa.
Also engaged in scene thievery is Ilana Glazer as Rebecca Grinch. As the name suggests, the hyper-sexual Rebecca Grinch isn't fond of Christmas. If you've seen Broad City, you know there is something special about Glazer, and the YOLO princess scores big laughs in limited time on screen.
The Night Before is loads of fun, and damn raunchy, but what makes it special is the love shared by its central characters.
Growing apart from childhood friends and the stress of adulthood are relatable themes, handled thoughtfully by Levine, even through the pot haze. Thanks to the chemistry between Mackie, Rogen and Gordon-Levitt, The Night Before has the big heart required of a Christmas classic.
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