Movie Review

Most of us have strong traditions associated with Christmas. But Ethan's traditions are likely stronger—and stranger—than yours.

Ever since Ethan's parents died in a tragic car crash in 2001, he's spent Christmas Eve with his friends, Isaac and Chris. They do many of the same things every year: look at the tree at Rockefeller Center. Eat Chinese food. Sing karaoke at a nearby dive. And, of course, get utterly plastered. Because really, why would someone want to celebrate the birth of Christ without a raging hangover?

But Ethan fears that the hangovers haven't been quite as raging as they could be. And for the last several years, he and his friends have been on a Christmas quest for the ultimate holiday party—the super-secret Nutcracker Ball, filled with enough drink and drugs to waylay a whole workshop of elves. But despite their fervent efforts each year to track the ball down, the Nutcracker has always eluded them. Rats.

Was the Nutcracker Ball real? An urban myth? A joke that someone was ho-ho-ho-ing about even now? Ethan, Isaac and Chris may never know. Isaac's married now and expecting his first child. Chris is a popular football star with little time to hang with his old buds. Nothing lasts forever—not even Christmas Eve egg drop soup. It's time to move on.

Then late one afternoon, as Ethan—in the getup of a Christmas elf—checks coats for a hoity-toity shindig, he spies a strange thing in one of the wraps. Big, bold, red tickets of some sort. Three of them. They don't say what they're for or where to go. They're almost completely blank, except for a phone number … and the visage of a nutcracker.

Ethan doesn't hesitate. He dumps the jackets, grabs the tickets and dashes out the door, not even bothering to snag a caviar cracker along the way. If this Christmas Eve is the final one he'll spend with his friends, He's going to make sure the night won't be wasted … even if he is.

Positive Elements

The Night Before stuffs a bevy of ill-considered "gifts" under its tree, filled with drugs and sex and bad behavior. But a few of the presents contain surprises. First, let's talk about the tradition itself. While this Christmas Eve get-together has never been particularly wholesome, it was created through good intentions. After Ethan's parents died, Isaac and Chris didn't want him to spend Christmas alone. "Christmas was about family," Isaac says. "Now it's about friends."

There's also a sense that tonight's the night they'll discover that their friendship goes well beyond a drink and a toke. Each learns an important lesson before the sun rises. About not using performance-enhancing drugs. About being honest with a spouse and facing the future (parenthood) with real peace rather than fake optimism. About not letting the past (even its good parts) hinder growth and the possibility of love.

Spiritual Content

Isaac is Jewish—a fact "humorously" stressed by, among other things, his goofy sweater emblazoned with the Star of David. When he, wasted, stumbles into a Midnight Mass with his wife, he asks who the guy on the cross is. When Betsy whispers that it's Jesus, Isaac looks at her in horror. "That's what they think we did to Him?!" He runs out of the Church, proclaiming his innocence.

Chris' quarterback, Tommy Owens, is known as the "Messiah." The nickname is repeated several times, and when Chris mentions it to his childhood drug dealer, Mr. Green, Green says the only Messiah he knows about is his Lord and Savior. "That name's a little blasphemous," Green scolds.

Those two strands come together when, in a slapstick sequence, Isaac winds up stabbing Tommy Owens' hand, pinning it to some elaborate Christmas decor. Tommy's teammates are horrified. "That Jewish guy crucified the Messiah!" they holler.

Isaac stumbles into an inanimate, life-size Nativity scene, carrying on a one-sided conversation with a shepherd (whom he calls Spencer), mistaking the sheep for dogs and stealing a shepherd's crook. He tries to shout "Halleluyer!" during a somber service. Chris says a blessing at the dinner table with his mom. His mother wants to show off Chris to all her church friends and says Isaac needs Jesus. ("He needs something," Chris admits.) After helping out the friends during the course of the evening, drug dealer Mr. Green sprouts a pair of wings and flies away, saying he thinks he's now "earned" them. Later, he calls Santa Claus "Dad." We hear several references to dubious "Christmas miracles." We see a picture of Mary and Jesus hanging on Chris' mother's wall.

Sexual Content

Isaac accidentally switches phones with Sarah, a girl he meets. He doesn't realize it, though, and he's very confused when a guy starts sexting him—sending pictures of his penis, along with queries about oral sex. (Moviegoers see the explicit images.) Later, when the mix-up is discovered, Isaac runs into both Sarah and the sexter, and there's talk of a threesome as the guy licks the side of Isaac's face. (It's not the only reference to threesomes.)

Chris has mostly clothed sex in a bathroom with a woman he just met. (We see explicit movements and a variety of sexual positions. We hear grunting and exclamations.) There's a joking suggestion that Ethan might have sex with both of Diana's parents. In a vision of "Christmas future," Isaac sees that his daughter has become a stripper. (Betsy tells him it's because they were horrible, unprepared parents, and she encourages the girl to flaunt herself.) There are jokes about nudity and various body parts. Two women kiss.

Violent Content

Ethan gets into a fistfight with a pair of drunken Santas, whom he accuses of "desecrating the spirit of Christmas." Isaac is pulled along a street—and nearly killed—by a pair of fake reindeer. The limo the friends ride in gets T-boned by a semi. A woman purposefully falls from a ledge, landing in a dumpster below. Someone throws a rat at Chris. Isaac and Chris get into a bit of a brawl where people get hit and injured by Christmas decorations.

Crude or Profane Language

Three c-words. Nearly 140 f-words. About 65 s-words. And as if that kind of content didn't already fill up the sleigh, a bagful of other coal-encrusted words get dumped in too: "a--," "d--n," "h---," "d--k." "c--k" and "p---y." God's name is misused about 15 times, and Jesus' is abused twice.

Drug and Alcohol Content

As a "reward" for Isaac being such a dedicated, thoughtful husband throughout Betsy's pregnancy, Betsy hands him a box loaded with a bevy of illegal drugs she bought on Craigslist. He starts his evening off with psychedelic mushrooms, which cause him to sweat and freak out. To counteract the 'shrooms, he snorts cocaine, which makes his nose to bleed in someone else's drink. He continues to take scads of drugs throughout the evening, leading to bizarre hallucinations, frightening rants and utterly confused behavior.

While some of Isaac's drug abuse is presented as laughably horrible, marijuana is seen in almost salvific terms. In a nod to Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, Mr. Green convinces each friend to smoke a particular brand of weed that Green believes each "needs." Chris is given a taste of marijuana present, Isaac of marijuana future, and Ethan of marijuana past. Pot is routinely stolen by "Rebecca Grinch," leading to helter-skelter chase scenes throughout the city.

In flashback, we see the friends smoke dope and drink whiskey. When arriving at a holiday party, Ethan admits he's already pretty drunk. People drink wine, beer, champagne, shots and mixed drinks, consuming, one would think, most of the alcohol in New York City. Miley Cyrus, performing at the Nutcracker Ball, admits she's drunk.

We see Chris' rump as he injects himself with steroids. Several people hold and smoke cigars.

Other Negative Elements

There's talk of mixing sex and defecation. Isaac vomits in a church.


The Night Before is, in its own addled way, an homage to just about every Christmas movie ever. Elf, Home Alone, It's a Wonderful Life, The Polar Express, even Die Hard … we're just about one Red Ryder BB gun away from a clean sweep. And despite its bleary, stumbling vibe, the pic seems to mean well. It seems to want to praise Christmas, not bury it.

But alas, bury Christmas is exactly what it ends up doing—in a litany of drugs, sexts, obscenity and blasphemy. The Night Before could have been called The Nightmare Before had Tim Burton not already made off with the name.

The story seems predicated on our three friends having one last wild night—on one of the holiest nights of the year—before officially "growing up." Sort of a bachelor party for bidding adieu to immaturity. But isn't that the same argument drug, alcohol and other addicts often use to excuse "one last night" of inebriation? "I'll do this one more time and then get clean," they say. Until the next last time.

But there's one more thing to say about this foul flick: "We all grow up," Ethan insists, and that he's ready to do it, finally, at 33. And with that, The Night Before offers a strangely timely message, given the 21st-century tendency to extend adolescence as long as possible. Twentysomething Millennials are living with their parents in record numbers. Many don't have steady jobs. It's fitting that Seth Rogen, an actor very much associated with extended adolescence, starred in and produced this movie: Even Rogen, it seems, suggests that we have to grow up sometime.

It's just too bad that the movie will never do the same.

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Plot Summary

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Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Ethan; Seth Rogen as Isaac; Anthony Mackie as Chris Roberts; Jillian Bell as Betsy; Lizzy Caplan as Diana; Mindy Kaling as Sarah; Heléne Yorke as Cindy; Ilana Glazer as Rebecca Grinch; Aaron Hill as Tommy Owens; Michael Shannon as Mr. Green; Lorraine Toussaint as Mrs. Roberts; Tracy Morgan as Narrator/Santa


Jonathan Levine ( )


Sony / Columbia



Record Label



In Theaters

November 20, 2015

On Video

March 1, 2016

Year Published



Paul Asay

Content Caution