Director and writer Jonathan Levine may have grown up in Jew-centric Manhattan, yet he recalls feeling somewhat like an alien every Christmas.
“I don’t think it was malicious,” Levine, 39, says in a phone interview. “But, in a way, I felt like an outsider looking in at the party.”
The sentiment only heightened post-holiday, when his non-Jewish chums came to school wearing or bragging about all the great gifts they received.
Levine’s Christmas was a tad different from his peers, though it may be one familiar to Jews across the U.S.: dinner with the family at a Chinese restaurant.
As a young adult in his early 20s, however, he and a group of friends started a tradition of their own. They would “stumble around looking for the very few places that were open, usually filled with weird people,” he says. “Inevitably crazy stuff would happen.”
“Not as crazy as the movie, though,” he adds.
Ah, yes, the movie. In Levine’s “The Night Before,” which opened nationwide last week, childhood friends gather for their annual Christmas Eve night of debauchery.
Isaac (played by Seth Rogen) is about to become a father and is frightened by the prospect; Chris (Anthony Mackie) is on the last legs of an NFL career and is taking drugs to sustain it; commitment-phobe Ethan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is miserable because he let the girl of his dreams get away.
It seems this will be their last bacchanal, so they embark on a drug- and alcohol-fueled search for the Nutcracka Ball, a super-secret yet reportedly the ultimate holiday party.
Given the movie’s plot and its cast, there is a sizable raunchy, laddie element to the film. But at its heart there’s a sweetness to “The Night Before” concerning friendship, growing up and a Don Quixote-like search for the elusive meaning of life.
“Certainly, it’s a quest of sorts,” says Levine (“The Wackness,” “50/50”). “Each person is missing something in their lives and believes finding this party with friends will fill that void. In the end, there is something to be said about expectations versus reality — and that’s in there,” beneath all the jokes about male genitalia, he says.
Reminiscing about his own Christmas Eve journeys, Levine says, “What I really loved about it was that the holidays were such an emotional time — whether you’re Christian or Jewish — and the feeling of being really close to your friends was wonderful.”
The film is laugh-filled, though some guffaws may cross the line for some viewers. For instance: Issac, the only Jewish character in the film, wears his new Star of David holiday sweater to Christmas Eve Mass with his wife and in-laws — and drunkenly throws up in the aisles of the church.
“I think that it’s kind of nice that he’s wearing his [Star of David] and that he’s proud of who he is,” Levine says. “I think that’s pretty cool, though I don’t know what that says culturally [about how young Jews are portrayed in film]. This character was always struggling with what it’s like to be Jewish on Christmas and the fact that he wears the star with pride is a positive thing.”
Still, Levine admits he was surprised that people weren’t offended when he started screening the movie.
“To me that goes to the inherent sweetness of the film,” he says. “This movie is funny, not blasphemous. The movie has such sweetness, I don’t think anyone feels we’re making some sort of statement about religion.”
Three of the movie’s four writers are Jewish. “We all identify very strongly with Judaism culturally, and we write about what we know,” Levine says. “There was never any notion that we wanted to hide it.”
Looking at his own Jewish roots, “I wouldn’t say we were incredibly religious,” Levine says of his family. “We observed the High Holidays and did a little more than the bare minimum that a lot of Reform Jews do.”
As for his plans this Christmas, Levine, the father of a 2-month-old son, says his family will celebrate the traditional way: with Chinese food and a movie.