The Night Before Is Your Next Cable Christmas Classic
In the pre-Thanksgiving battle of the box office, The Night Before couldn’t ruin Mockingjay Part 2‘s November reign. The one-crazy-night hard-R Christmas comedy starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, and Anthony Mackie had a first weekend that fell just short of $10 million—something that analysts generously call “soft.” Yet, somehow, it escaped the usual second-week drop-off, losing only 15 percent at the box office. Not only did that make The Night Before profitable, it also virtually ensured one very surprising thing: that the film is destined to be the next inescapable holiday movie, rerunning on cable in perpetuity and making everyone involved a nice chunk of change.
Consider what the next couple of weeks look like before for Star Wars: The Force Awakens arrives to decimate theaters. The only genre competition The Night Before faces is Krampus, a horror/dark comedy that will likely attract horror fans but not too many else. That gives The Night Before a four-week stretch as the only comedy in wide release, and puts it in league with two other R-Rated holiday comedies that performed well despite ho-hum openings: Bad Santa and Love Actually.
Those comparison films are important measuring sticks, because they were two of the three movies that made 2003 the most successful holiday-movie year of the 21st century. Along with Elf, they not only cleared a tidy profit—or, in Elf’s case, ruled the box office and spawned both a stage musical and a cottage industry—but have ruled the broadcast and cable airwaves for a decade. And that long-tail TV presence is what separates a classic Christmas movie from a holiday themed cash-grab. Just as It’s A Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street gave way to A Christmas Story and Nation Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, and then Home Alone and The Santa Clause, The Night Before feels destined to play over and over again on cable networks for holiday seasons to come.
According to CinemaScore—the company that polls opening night audiences to gauge a film’s general appeal—The Night Before earned an A-, which actually puts it ahead of Love Actually (B+), Bad Santa (B), and A Very Harold And Kumar 3D Christmas (B) (which, as a stoner comedy, is really The Night Before’s closest counterpart). Is CinemaScore science? No, but it’s a good indicator of whether audiences are likely to keep a movie alive through word-of-mouth, and drive interest when it eventually hits cable.
It helps that The Night Before can stand on its own without the holiday associations. Instead of being only a stoner comedy, Jonathan Levine’s film deftly balances the last-hurrah bender plotline with an emotional arc that’s reminiscent of 50/50, the director’s previous collaboration with Rogen and JGL. Not that it skimps on the weed bona fides: Michael Shannon turns in a stellar supporting performance as the trio’s high-school pot dealer that cements him as the Christopher Walken of his generation. Jillian Bell, every bit as much of a standout here as she was in 22 Jump Street, complements Seth Rogen as a comedic partner better than even Rose Byrne in Neighbors. And Lorraine Toussaint gives a grounded, heartwarming performance as Chris’ (Mackie) mother, lending the film some emotional breathing room amid the debauchery.
But the key to why The Night Before deserves to be remembered and re-watched for years to come lies in one plot decision. In the third act, as the merry trio reaches the holiday party that’s their ultimate destination, the film threatens to go off the rails: Ethan (Rogen) confronts a big-time celebrity (a big-time cameo that comes in like a wrecking ball) who berates him about his ex-girlfriend, Diana (Lizzie Caplan). It’s the holidays, the celeb says, and Ethan needs needs to step up and make a grand gesture—like, say, an impromptu proposal.
This is when a terrible holiday movie would go full-tilt into saccharine seasonal magic: the man-child seeing the error of his juvenile ways, everyone riding off into lightly falling snow. But instead, The Night Before goes the other way—hard. Without spoiling it, just know that there’s a musical sequence devoted to telling Ethan he’s making a terrible decision. Friends are important, the movie says, but relationships change. Gargantuan shifts don’t happen overnight, even when fueled by alcohol; instead, personal evolution is the result of many incremental changes.
Is that saccharine in its own way? Maybe. But it’s also honest, and that alone helps separate The Night Before from other holiday touchstones. Candor, comedy, and kush are all proven ingredients for long-term TV-rerun success—and taken together, they’re bound to help make the film a December staple for a very, very long time.