‘The Night Before’: A bromance with holiday cheer


Christmas may be the genre and red-and-green backdrop of “The Night Before” (in theaters Nov. 20), but at the film’s heart is the landscape of friendship as it begins to shift when people hit their 30s.

Friends since childhood, Ethan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), Isaac (Seth Rogen) and Chris (Anthony Mackie) have reunited every Christmas Eve for a night of revelry since Ethan lost his parents in a car accident and Isaac and Chris decided they would be his family. Ten years later, Isaac is on the brink of fatherhood, Chris is busy being a professional athlete, and Ethan is getting over a breakup. Understanding that this year will be their last Christmas hurrah before everything changes, the three set out on a quest to find a secret, exclusive Christmas party called the Nutcracka Ball. 

Director Jonathan Levine, who co-wrote the film with regular collaborators Kyle Hunter and Ariel Shaffir, and frequent Rogen co-writer Evan Goldberg (“Superbad”), admitted that the tone is a shift from his previous films, which included “50/50,” about a young man who has cancer, and “Warm Bodies,” a zombie romance film.

“Our No. 1 objective was to make people laugh and smile,” Levine told the Journal at the media junket for the film at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills. “In ‘50/50,’ there was lots of funny stuff, but it was serious. ‘The Night Before’ was born out of the desire to just make people happy, to shed the complicated tone.” 

The director noted that the film isn’t all raucous fun. “It has some drama too, because that’s just part of my personality; I can’t get away from that. And Christmas movies always have a lot of heart.”

Growing up in New York City, Levine annually celebrated both Chanukah and Christmas, surmising that it was because his mom “spoiled us” and would make “any excuse to give us presents,” he said. He was “always into Christmas movies,” including “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” “Home Alone” and, especially, “It’s a Wonderful Life” (elements of these films are invoked directly and indirectly in “The Night Before”). 

He described his attraction toward the holiday spirit of Christmas in a secular way — he liked the music, the spirit of being nice to people, and being kind to fellow humans. The Jewish character played by Rogen, he said, is “another Jew who’s really into Christmas like I am.”

Still, the perspective of a Jew on Christmas is that of an outsider, which Levine called “a fertile ground for comedy. The movie has no provocative stance on religion; it takes the spirit of Christmas and the values it represents” — he points out time spent with family and friends, as well as kindness and peace on Earth — “and makes it for everyone.”

The concept of friends as family, reflected in the film through Ethan and his buddies, is a reflection of the friends-as-family who made the film. Levine and many of the writers and actors involved have worked together before and are slated for future collaborations. For example, “50/50” featured Rogen and Gordon-Levitt as actors and Shaffir and Hunter as associate producers. Levine said working with his “movie family” again felt like a reunion, and “makes you feel safe and take risks, and I can’t speak enough about how important it is. … [They] keep you honest creatively, empower you.”

Although the film is heavy on the bromance among the three lead actors, it’s not a total boys’ club: Strong comedic actors such as Lizzy Caplan, Mindy Kaling, Ilana Glazer and Jillian Bell play key roles. 

“The great thing about Seth and Evan’s work is that even though there’s a lot of sex humor, it’s incredibly respectful of women and gives them a chance to shine even though it’s not told from their point of view,” Levine said, identifying Rose Byrne (“Neighbors”), Katherine Heigl (“Knocked Up”), Emma Stone (“Superbad”) and Anna Kendrick (“50/50”) as examples. “We allowed women to come in and make these roles their own. But we owe a great debt of gratitude to all of them, because they make us look better by making their roles better.” 

But in “The Night Before,” it is Michael Shannon (previously best known for his intense role on “Boardwalk Empire”) as Mr. Green — the leading trio’s pothead high-school teacher who is now a pot dealer — who gives the story some dramatic, sinister and slightly magical or spiritual heft. Levine said it was always his intent to have a magical element to the film, but that the character “evolved through several drafts” as he worked through the balance between magic and realism. 

“[Shannon] was in mind early on and we were pretty excited about it. We knew that the juxtaposition of his on-screen persona with this character would work, but he took it to a whole other level.” 

Shannon made up a lot of the lines himself, Levine said, and “just got that it needed to be weird. He’s got a great comedic instinct.”

Levine has been honing his cinematic instincts since he was 12, making short movies with his friends, doing their own versions of “Saturday Night Live” sketches, and tying a bagel to a string and dangling it out a sixth floor window, filming the people who reached up to grab it from the air. 

“It’s nice to know what you always wanted to do,” he said. “Everyone else was trying to figure it out. But I never really questioned it at all and just kept doing it.” 

“The Night Before,” geared toward 20- and 30-somethings and featuring abundant drug use, swearing and graphic male nudity, is certainly not for children. Those who have been through the friendship transitions of post-college real life will empathize with the relationships, if not to the particulars of the somewhat magical quest, depicted in the film. 

As far Levine is concerned, he hopes that audiences “have a good time — that’s the No. 1 goal. And maybe call an old friend you haven’t talked to in a while,” he added. “I’m pretty good about keeping up with old friends, but life kind of gets in the way as you get older. Old friends are important, and I think it’s cool to remember them.” 

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