'Tis the season for holiday movies, and this year offers a legitimately great one: The Night Before, which reunites writer/director Jonathan Levine with his 50/50 stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Seth Rogen for a not-so-family-friendly Christmas romp that's both hilarious and surprisingly touching.
The movie centers on Ethan (Gordon-Levitt), a 30-something aspiring musician who's been a bit stuck in life ever since his parents were killed by a drunk driver around Christmastime. Since the accident, he and his two best friends, Isaac (Rogen) and Chris (Anthony Mackie), have maintained an annual holiday tradition of partying together on Christmas Eve, one that involves karaoke, the tree at the Rockefeller Center, and the search for the white whale of Christmas parties: the Nutcracker Ball, a mysterious and exclusive event that promises a life-changing partying experience.
After 10 years of this, Isaac and Chris have decided it's time to put the tradition to bed. But then Ethan finds three tickets to the Nutcracker Ball, and the guys agree to make their last Christmas together the wildest one yet. What follows is a classic "one crazy night" movie with a Christmas twist. It's basically The Odyssey, except instead of an epic poem about a warrior trying to return home,The Night Before is the story of a man-child attempting to spend Christmas Eve getting epically fucked up with his "ride or die" bros.
Of course, The Odyssey isn't exactly Christmassy, so it's a good thing that writer/director Levine didn't find all his inspiration in classic Greek literature. Part of what makes The Night Before so enjoyable is that it smartly takes a lesson from — and sometimes pays direct homage to — some of the best Christmas movies out there. Here are five of them.
1) The Christmas spirit is worth fighting for — even if you have to do it alone
Early in The Night Before, Isaac and Chris have a frank discussion about how they're basically enabling Ethan's continued drift through life by sticking to the Christmas tradition the trio started when they were much younger. Isaac is now married with a child on the way, and Chris has become a famous football player, but Ethan is still doing the same things he's been doing for more than a decade. So when Isaac and Chris decide it's time to leave their Christmas Eve excesses in the past and Ethan finds himself abandoned by his de facto family, he has to grow up and take matters into his own hands.
This is, of course, reminiscent of Kevin McCallister's plight in Home Alone, and while Ethan may be battling drunk Santas instead of bumbling petty thieves, both are fighting to keep the spirit of Christmas intact.
As a bonus, The Night Before even squeezes in a couple a loving homages to Kevin and co., including a true Home Alone pratfall brought about by Micro Machines.
2) It's a time to think of others
None of The Night Before's characters are quite as grumpy and unfeeling as A Christmas Carol's Ebenezer Scrooge, but they are all motivated by their own selfish concerns. Chris wants to impress his football teammates by providing them with mass quantities of weed (of a strain aptly named the "ghost of Christmas present"). Ethan wants to make it to the Nutcracker Ball so he can see his ex (Lizzy Caplan), whom he's still hung up on (and maybe employ some Christmas sentimentality to get her back). And Isaac — whose wife, Betsy (Jillian Bell), has presented him with a box full of "every drug on Earth," as a reward for him being her "Dwayne Johnson" during her pregnancy — mostly wants to find his phone while consuming as many mind-altering substances as possible. As they all run off in pursuit of their own agendas, things predictably dissolve into disaster.
But eventually they realize that the only way they'll get any satisfaction is to put each other first — and Ethan, who's been feeling useless and cut off from his friends, has a George Bailey–esque moment of realization that he means as much to them as they do to him.
3) Sometimes getting what you want can be painful
Much like A Christmas Story's Ralphie doggedly pursues the Red Ryder Carbine Action 200-shot Range Model air rifle, Ethan has a singular focus and purpose: to find the location of the Nutcracker Ball and to have the Best Night Ever. He fights his way through obstacle after obstacle to reach his goal. And when he finally does, it seems like the stars have aligned for him — but then, naturally, he shoots his eye out (metaphorically speaking).
Ethan's euphoric high immediately collapses into a crushing low, and he's forced to realize that even the shiniest of presents or the most debaucherous of tinsel-decked affairs won't make everything perfect. Luckily, the pain is temporary and even leads to some good; Ralphie ends up with a fond memory of his "best Christmas present ever," while Ethan uses his failure as a catalyst to change his life permanently for the better.
4) Change can be scary — but also great
Ethan and Elf's Buddy the Elf could probably find some things to talk about: Both orphans, they grow up in atypical"families" who continue to accept them even after they stop fitting in so well. But while Buddy decides of his own volition that it's time for him to leave the North Pole, Ethan is being made to end his stasis by his friends' progressing lives. Both are plunged into strange and frightening worlds — New York City for Buddy, adulthood for Ethan — and both have more than a little trouble adapting.
Eventually they both recognize that though things can't stay the same forever, it doesn't mean they have to leave their old selves behind entirely. Traditions don't have to end, they just evolve — sometimes into something even better than before.
5) The holidays mean nothing without the people we love
This applies to pretty much any Christmas movie, but Love, Actually is an excellent example. As tearjerking and emotionally manipulative as the movie may be, it's still beautifully poignant thanks to the huge range of relationships it explores. Unlike most rom-coms, it doesn't treat a budding heterosexual relationship between an impossibly attractive man and an equally attractive woman as the end-all, be-all of human interaction. Instead, it understands humanity's reliance on meaningful connections — between mothers and children, between husbands and wives, between women and pop music, and, yes, between friends.
It's this connection between friends that leads to The Night Before's best scene, in which it takes a brief pause from the drugs and profanity to show Ethan, Isaac, and Chris sharing a moment of true vulnerability. Thankfully, it doesn't box them into the tired "dudes are afraid of expressing emotions" stereotype; instead, it gives the three men feelings and reactions that actual humans experience. That's ultimately what makes The Night Before more than just another shallow comedy. That's what makes us actually care about the characters and want them to find happiness (or at least not die of a cocaine overdose).
Christmas, after all, isn't about drugs or parties or even getting to sing onstage with Miley Cyrus (though Ethan might disagree). It's about the people we love — and that's a lesson The Night Before takes to heart.
The Night Before is playing in theaters across the country.