“Nick Carraway and Jay Gatsby, a Bromance”
The Night Before (Jonathan Levine, 2015) is one of those wonderful Hollywood films where the low expectations established by the trailer mask its more challenging project, making its final impact all the greater. I went to the film anticipating the normal “bromance” shenanigans from the Seth Rogen crowd. Indeed, interspersed throughout are the usual man-boy antics: high on drugs given to him by his wife, Rogen’s character vomits at midnight mass; he and James Franco engage in their typical homophobic banter; and he and his friends go to the FAO Schwartz toy store to play rap songs using the giant floor piano used by Tom Hanks in Penny Marshall’s Big (1988).
But the film is structured not by the expected set pieces, but instead by a startling development of intertexts. The film begins by suggesting that its title is merely a corrupted version of the first line of the famous holiday poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (1823) by Clement Clarke Moore. That first line—“’twas the night before Christmas, when all thro’ the house…”—and the subsequent stanzas, serve as the foundation of modern American celebrations of the Christmas holiday. Taking a page from Elf (Jon Favreau, 2003), narrated by Bob Newhart’s Poppa Elf, The Night Before begins its holiday story as a rhyming poem narrated by Santa Claus (Tracy Morgan).
But the film quickly leaves rhyming Saint Nick behind, branching off into a story about three men—Ethan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), an orphan; Isaac (Seth Rogen), a father-to-be; and Chris (Anthony Mackie), a flamboyant but mediocre athlete—who learn that their juvenile friendship can survive their maturation into middle adulthood. As the film begins, Isaac and Chris are trying to move beyond their holiday tradition, taking Ethan out for a night on the town before Christmas to deflect his attention away from the sadness caused by his parents’ death at the hands of a drunk driver. Chris gets an assignment from Tommy Owens, a famous quarterback he is trying to impress: he is to secure marijuana and bring it to the Nutcracker’s Ball, a notorious holiday party the three friends have been desperately trying to crash for many years. Not knowing where else to turn, the three friends call up Mr. Green (Michael Shannon), a pot dealer they used to buy from when they were in high school.
Mr. Green is the film’s secret owner. Each time our heroes encounter him, the laconic drug salesman invokes the ghosts in A Christmas Carol (1843). He gives each of the men marijuana to provoke their increased knowledge about themselves and each other. The most obvious transformation of the novella by Charles Dickens engineered by The Night Before is that the selfish Scrooge is split across all three of the characters, establishing a better sociological sense that change occurs beyond the level of the individual. This is unlike almost all of the film adaptations of A Christmas Carol, from the traditional (the 1938 film starring Reginald Owen and the 1951 film starring Alastair Sim being the gold standards) to the contemporary, Richard Donner’s Scrooged (1988), being otherwise the closest in tone to The Night After. Because of its obsession with childish masculinity, The Night After can nor more conceive of women being at the center of the moral transformation as the more traditional versions, but at least it does not believe that the moral shortcomings of humanity can be siphoned off onto one bad egg.
The more important of the transformations of Dickens is the change to the order of the arrival of the ghosts. Dickens presents things chronologically: the Ghost of Christmas Past reminds Scrooge of his lonely childhood and his abandoned fiancée, Belle. Then, the Ghost of Christmas Present introduces the miser to the dying children, Ignorance and Want. Finally, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come seals the deal, making Scrooge witness the immoral thievery to take place at his funeral.
In The Night Before, by contrast, Mr. Green first gives Chris the marijuana of the present. Like Scrooge, Chris must come to see that his current, self-destructive behavior—taking steroids to prolong his career—must end. Next, the drugs that Mr. Green gives to Isaac are to fix the future: Rogen’s character imagines his daughter as a stripper. As in Dickens, this ends Isaac’s infantile desire to run away from his familial responsibilities. The Night After saves Dickens’ first ghost for its climax. The final drug deal has Ethan receive the reefer of the past, which allows him to return to Christmas 2001, immediately after his parents died, when his friends first galvanized around him to console and nurture.
Why this change in causality? Mr. Green himself gives a clue. Right before giving Ethan the drugs that will induce a vision of the past, our three heroes finally arrive at the Nutcracker Ball. Quickly things turn to chaos: Chris fails to impress the quarterback while Ethan bungles his reconciliation with his estranged girlfriend. After a melee, Ethan retreats to the roof of the building. There, he meets Mr. Green, overlooking the city. Mr. Green asks Ethan if he’s ever read The Great Gatsby, explaining that he has been hosting the Nutcracker Ball all these years because of his fascination with Jay Gatsby throwing parties without anyone knowing who he was.
The revelation of the film’s secret, secondary intertext is an intellectually startling moment. But, why do the filmmakers choose this 1925 novel, of all things? F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel responds to the decadence of the Jazz Age in the wake of the trauma of World War I. The date of Ethan’s family tragedy, 2001, suddenly reemerges in a new light. If The Night Before is a sociological expansion of the individualism of A Christmas Carol, perhaps Ethan’s family dying in a car crash masquerades a larger social trauma, that of September 11. The assault on New York City itself serves as the impetus for Mr. Green’s redemption of the film’s libidinal obsessions.
If my reading of Ethan’s backstory—questioning the car crash and foregrounding September 11—seems a bit thin, consider what we know of Jay Gatsby: he was a hero in the Great War and he collaborated with gangsters. Fitzgerald presents these “facts” in an equal shroud of mysterious rumors and whispers. Are they really true? Such is the stuff of great American storytelling: our grandiose traumas are expressed in the flimsiest of packages.
The Great Gatsby is our greatest novel, but note that it is also just a bromance, a celebration of the love that young Nick Carraway has for the elusive self-made man, perhaps a figment of our imaginations. It is a fantasy that questions the American Dream, a goal that ever eludes us. Yes, The Night Before ends more optimistically, but the film never quite discards its observation that our current Jazz Age—where Miley Cyrus sings at parties to the 1% while 15% of us live in abject poverty—rings just as hollow.