It’s like they put out Christmas movies earlier and earlier every year.
The release of “The Night Before” marks the start of 2015′s Christmas Movie Season. It is perhaps one of my favorite Christmas-themed movies in a long time. Maybe after a few more viewings, I will be able to put it alongside “Trading Places.”
In “The Night Before,” Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Ethan. When he was a child, his parents were both killed in a car accident one Christmas. After that, his best friends Isaac (Seth Rogen) and Chris (Anthony Mackie) form a makeshift family with him and vow to spend every Christmas together. However, the older they get, the more difficult this becomes. While Isaac and Chris have career and family obligations, Ethan is the only one of them who can’t seem to grow up.
Like with “White Christmas” and many other Christmas classics in popular culture, “The Night Before” was put together by a lot of Jews. In fact, “The Night Before” is populated with more Jews than any other Christmas movie I can remember. Ilana Glazer (“Broad City”) and Nathan Fielder (“Nathan for You”) appear alongside Rogen and Gordon-Levitt.
In the past, Jews have had to hide themselves in plain sight in Hollywood, throwing away Hanukkah traditions and buying into this whole Christmas thing. That changed around the time Adam Sandler came out with his first version of the Hanukkah song (for the record: I have heard the upcoming fourth version and it is great) and “Rugrats” put out a Hanukkah special. With this in mind, “The Night Before” might feel like a step back. Don’t get me wrong, it is a holiday classic in the making, complete with a stoned guardian angel played by Michael Shannon. However, I am still waiting for my Hanukkah classic, and “Eight Crazy Nights” doesn’t quite cut it.
However, in terms of Jews getting their beloved (but not that important) December holiday on the big screen, “The Night Before” comes very close. For this, we can thank Seth Rogen and his Star of David sweatshirt.
In the movie, Rogen is something of the token Jew in a movie that is filled with Jews playing non-Jews. Rogen is not the movie’s main character, and his story arc is less about being Jewish and more about his fear of fatherhood. But hey, the man spends the entire movie wearing a Star of David so we’re going to talk about it.
Rogen’s Isaac is first introduced at a Christmas party. He has married a non-Jew (Jillian Bell). He is asked by two very creepy identical twins what a Jew is. Yes, I have been asked many variations of this question in the past. This movie tackles the fear of being alone on Christmas. Really, “The Night Before,” directed by Jonathan Levine, is Christmas through the Jewish perspective. Ethan wants a family to celebrate the holiday with. Anyone who lights a menorah for an eight night stretch of the year knows the lonely feeling of being the only one without a Christmas tree to decorate.
Jews will do anything to make it feel like they are celebrating their own holiday on Christmas, given that Hanukkah and Christmas rarely overlap. Some people go to the movies and eat Chinese food (the latter is part of Ethan, Isaac, and Chris’s Christmas tradition). Others might go to a Jewish dating event where a mixed drink costs $18 (I have done this and that price is real). None of these exactly feel right but they are comforting in their own weird ways. They are means of connecting on the one day of the year where you roll out of bed feeling like a misfit.
To say that Jews are an underrepresented minority in film and television would be wrong, given that Hollywood actually was founded by a bunch of Jews and there are minorities that deal with real representation problems every day (watch “Master of None”). However, it still feels like the Jewish experience can be hidden in plain sight, even when Jewish people are both in front of and behind the camera.
Luckily, we have Seth Rogen. For him, it is just impossible to hide his Jewish nature. In “Knocked Up,” when asked what product he uses in his hair, he simply responds, “it’s called Jew.” While Gordon-Levitt is a chameleon, Rogen just has to be Jewish. It’s the elephant in the room.
The Jewish nature of “The Night Before” goes well beyond a reference or joke or two. Sure, it’s not “A Serious Man.” However, it is a step towards showing that not everybody connects with the biggest holiday of the year, and that maybe we will finally get the Hanukkah movie that we deserve.
But really, “The Night Before” is less about the true meaning of Christmas and more about the importance of being around friends, family, and people you love. You don’t have to celebrate this one holiday just to fit in.