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Night Before, The

Sony Pictures // R // March 1, 2016
List Price: $34.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Thomas Spurlin | posted March 1, 2016 | E-mail the Author
The Film:

After touching upon the humor in the harrowing experience of having cancer at a young age and following that with zombies awakening from their groggy mental state, director Jonathan Levine turns his attention to something a bit more grounded with The Night Before. Sure, there's a deeper underlying purpose to the film that's built on the surrogate families we build amid hardship, among other adult themes, but the general crux of what's going on here really centers on a trio of unlikely, old friends hitting New York City on Christmas Eve and charging their way through time-honored traditions one last time. Madcap, crude humor lights up each of their stops in ways that could've easily distracted from their camaraderie and personal issues (and occasionally does), but the alternating concentration on the guys' individual issues and their dedication to the spirit of the season -- both to how it once was and how it's evolved with age -- laces the vulgarity with enough sweetness to make it a rewarding holiday adventure.

While The Night Before spreads its attention between the three guys, the spotlight largely falls on Ethan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and his reliance on the ongoing ritual of going out with his two best friends, lawyer Isaac (Seth Rogen) and professional football player Chris (Anthony Mackie), for a night of debauchery on Christmas Eve. What started as a way of coping with the sudden death of Ethan's parents had come full circle over the years, escalating into a sweater-wearing extravaganza of booze-fueled craziness and coming back down into an obligatory night of drinks for the other two guys, whose mature obligations have tamed them over the years. Reluctantly agreeing that this would be the last of their traditional shindigs, Ethan finds a way of locating tickets to the most coveted bash in town, The Nutcracker Ball, ensuring that it'll be an evening they're not likely to forget any time soon. Sporting ugly sweaters and packing plenty of contraband, the trio embark on what's assured to be a wild sendoff ... and, hopefully, the start of a new, rewarding period for Ethan.

Early on, the almost mythic nature of the Nutcracker Ball and the changing relationship between the three guys give The Night Before the feel of a surreal, sentimental Christmas tale, a final journey into the jubilance of their youth before the three guys well and truly grow up. Similarly to how he handled both 50/50 and Warm Bodies, director Levine balances out playful vulgarity with earnest dramatic tones, something that's easy to emphasize when surrounded by Ethan's stunted reality due to the death of his parents. Joseph Gordon-Levitt wears that melancholy temperament well, similarly to his roles in 50/50 and 500 Days of Summer, evening out Ethan's enthusiasm for the holiday with a rational, quietly dejected grasp on how his friends' lives have changed over the years and how his own hasn't progressed -- either professionally and romantically -- due to his heavy mental space. When paired with the recognizable charms of Seth Rogen and Anthony Mackie, they produce nostalgic energy while hopping between toy stores, Chinese restaurants, and karaoke bars alongside vivacious holiday music.

There's more to The Night Before than the guys getting blitzed and causing havoc across the city, but the point when they start, uh, partaking is where the humor really kicks into gear, especially with soon-to-be father Isaac. The script's humor holds more cleverness than it initially lets on, playing around with all three guys' insecurities while amplifying their dysfunctional relationship as they seek out the "holy grail" of Christmas parties, tapping into genuine conversations about their status in life -- parenting, pro-sports prestige, and Ethan's bungled relationship with Diana (Lizzy Caplan) -- that's relatively understated in its humor. Levine interrupts their brotherly bickering with sprawling, surreal stretches of slapstick humor involving Isaac's multiple levels of altered consciousness and heaps of rambunctiously festive physical comedy, mushrooming into an enjoyably psychedelic rhythm with some zany computer wizardry -- and some surprise full-frontal nudity -- that revels in its lack of subtlety. Just when it all seems like a little much, a flicker of earnestness evens things out.

Building to the trio's arrival at the fabled Nutcracker Ball while careening between direct references to other holiday films, from Home Alone to *cough* Die Hard, The Night Before pulls together its sense of humor and sweet disposition into a hectic and distinctively warming destination for their evening. Sprinkled with cleverly-chosen supporting roles -- Michael Shannon as a sagely pot dealer; Broad City's Ilana Glazer as a tried-and-true Grinch -- and a doting dedication to bringing the characters' stories full circle, Levine's film exerts a firm grasp on what matters over the holiday season while pulling outlandish tricks out from under its sleeve. While the colorful soiree could be accused of overstaying its welcome due to forced religious gags and overzealous celebrity cameos, the excess oddly still adds to the charm of the three guys' therapeutic, often side-splitting trek toward revamping their pseudo-family bond. That The Night Before gets the feel of Christmas as right as it does within the space between a juvenile stoner comedy and a thirty-something nostalgic quest makes it easy to forgive a little yuletide indulgence.

The Blu-ray:

Video and Audio:

The Night Before arrives gift-wrapped from Sony Home Entertainment in a divine 2.35:1-framed, 1080p AVC transfer that amply replicates its theatrical appearance, which includes a faint, hazy grain at times that elevates the somewhat whimsical nature of the three guys' Christmastime trek across New York. Out-of-focus festive lights and camerawork that stays constantly in motion accentuate that aesthetic, yet that makes the sequences that do zero in on sharp, fine details -- in the guys' sweaters, on the close-ups on Michael Shannon's scraggly facial hair, on the luminous tickets themselves -- all the more satisfying. Color saturation is really impressive: shades of red, blue, and green in clothing are solid yet appropriately muted; the vibrant lights on Christmas trees and in nightclubs are strong, responsive, and free of bleeding; and skin tones are appropriately warm depending on the lighting conditions. Though the black levels can be light and a touch washed out at a few points, they're generally quite solid and do a fantastic job of enhancing the image's depth, rounding out the transfer's modest delights.

Despite the film largely operating around three guys walking around New York to various nostalgic spots, there's actually a lot of rather cool sound elements going on in this 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track, playfully using the channel separation and seasonal music to enhance the atmosphere. A distorted voice from a microphone, the distant thumping of music in bars and nightclubs, and the hum of cars alongside other city ambience actively engage the surround channels, while also gracefully touching upon subtle bass response, too. The twinkle of semi-familiar Christmas music stays consistently balanced against the film's sound effects, never drowning out dialogue or surround activity. Dialogue gets along well with the varied locations, too, remaining discernible and adaptive throughout no matter the atmosphere. Coupled with a few magical touches that hit upon sharp high-end notes, twinkles of the holiday season and the trippy effects of drug use, and we've got a strong and fitting accompaniment for the visuals.

Special Features:

The Night Before goes the route of spacing out behind-the-scenes content into several fairly brief yet focused featurettes, compiling together interviews and off-camera footage with pertinent, parallel clips from the film. Christmas In The Summer (5:35, 16x9 HD) covers how director Jonathan Levine and his cast/crew weathered -- teehee -- the heat and how they eventually found it easier than actually shooting in December, elaborating on the sweaters and snow during those points, while The Spirit of Christmas (3:23, 16x9 HD) talks a bit about how they nailed down the authentic holiday essence in the film. Drunken Santas On the Block (4:27, 16x9 HD) has fun with elaborating on the pair of actors from the film on a themed pub crawl, filled with a lot of unused ad-libbed scenes, and Midnight Mass with Momma (4:06, 16x9 HD) focuses on making the hilarious church sequence from the film, also filled out with unused footage. Whale Juice (3:11, 16x9 HD) does the same with the strip club sequence, and Mr. Green-O-Rama (3:59, 16x9 HD) focuses on Michael Shannon's role in the film.

The one longer, general featurette of the bunch comes in Making One Epic Party (20:22, 16x9 HD), which gets into how much of a Christmas film they really wanted to make, whether they wanted to play with reality and how far they'd take the drug content throughout the film. Director Levine chats about balancing the tender drama with stuff like trip-outs and dick pics, playing with the bond between the three guys and focusing on Ethan's coming-of-age angle. They also discuss the general aspect of the other characters and their emotional -- and pharmacological -- changes throughout the film, as well as how they magnify the humor around the female characters more than around the men and the chaos of shooting around the Red Bull limousine. It's a great closer to the smaller featurettes. They've also included a cluster of four Deleted / Extended Scenes (8:00, 16x9 HD) and a pretty meh Gag Reel (1:00, 16x9 HD), as well as a Digital Copy slip for good measure.

Final Thoughts:

The Night Before doesn't quite reach the sentiment and laughs that'd make it a modern holiday classic, but its reverence for the spirit of the season and its earnest emotional backbone -- involving second families, coping with tragedy, and the different barriers to growing up -- make for an immensely entertaining entry in the genre from director Jonathan Levine. The mix of ad-lib lines and bonkers developments across the last night of debauchery for three friends in their thirties hits a strong comedic sweet spot, balancing under-the-influence shenanigans with robust nostalgia while they search for the ultimate Christmas party across New York. Sometimes it goes a little far while trying to get its chuckles, and the idea of aging guys on a "spirit quest" sendoff isn't anything terribly new, but it works surprisingly well within the context of a Christmas film and comes packed with joyful nudges and winks to other wintry staples ... and to the season itself. Sony's Blu-ray looks and sounds just right, and arrives with about an hour of worthwhile featurettes. Highly Recommended.

Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site
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