The following review is by Josh Dickey, Mashable.com ©
LOS ANGELES — The gay-panic joke is over.
For years it has run like a shiver up the spine of male-centered comedy — and Hollywood will surely keep going back to it, even though it's offensive, worn-out and was never that funny to begin with. Yet — ding dong merrily on high — gay panic humor is nowhere to be found in The Night Before.
In fact, the latest bro-down from Seth Rogen's band of merry pranksters (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, 50/50 writer/director Jonathan Levine and James Franco add Anthony Mackie to the ensemble here) manages something much more sophisticated and daring: a running same-sex sight gag that not only sails over the sensitivity bar, but actually works.
It's a refreshing departure — and, if we're being hopeful here, a possible turning-away point — from a trope that's only funny if you believe sexual contact with another man is a straight man's worst living nightmare. See, for example, Will Ferrell and Kevin Hart, who released the unambiguously titled Get Hard earlier this year, then acted surprised when the media forced them to reckon with its underlying homophobia.
After a critical drubbing — Variety said that the film contained "some of the ugliest gay-panic humor to befoul a studio release" — Ferrell and Hart were forced to answer to the junket press. Their conclusions, as you can imagine, were deeply unsatisfying, focused on the old-fashioned "funny is funny" defense.
Ferrell and Hart were hardly pioneers here. Michael Bay (famous for many reasons, none of which is comic sensibility) is a prolific practitioner of homophobic-hysteria-as-humor. Judd Apatow, as forcefully socially conscious as powerful filmmakers get these days (on Twitter, at least), wrote and directed the "You know how I know you’re gay?" riff in The Forty Year-Old Virgin.
We could go on and on and on. Remember The Dilemma? The Hangover movies? That bedroom scene in Wedding Crashers? Examples abound.
And to be fair: Though they've never gotten quite as mean-spirited as the premise of Get Hard, the Night Before gang has walked up to that line, too. The most recent example came last year, when Rogen's character was forced to stash a phallic object where the sun don't shine in The Interview. Before that, 2013's This is the End concluded with Jonah Hill being raped by a demon.
The Night Before, which opened nationwide Friday, turns gay panic upside-down in a moment that, at first, looks like recidivism. Before we get into it, here is your SPOILER ALERT: The trailing paragraphs give away a major joke.
The film centers on three friends (Rogen, Mackie and Gordon-Levitt) who come together in Manhattan every year for a night of Christmas Eve debauchery. Because of their evolving life circumstances, this will be the last time they observe the tradition — so Isaac's (Rogen) pregnant wife (Jillian Bell, playing a character who's surprisingly well drawn) sends him into the night with a cache of drugs and a free pass.
During a sequence at a karaoke bar, Isaac accidentally swaps phones with his friend Sarah (Mindy Kaling). After they part company, he's confronted by a text message from one of her male acquaintances. More specifically, it's a dick pic — an impressive one, at that — accompanied by a proposition (a situation that, it begs to be noted, actually played out in real life just a few weeks ago).
And here's where you think, "Oh boy, here we go again."
Except that's not what happens at all. Isaac is shocked at first — he hasn't yet realized that his phone was swapped — but instead of revulsion or disgust, his reaction is something more like ... admiration. Clearly Isaac isn't gay, but he knows a great penis when he sees one. He begins a text conversation that pays off not just in the moment, but at a few intervals before The Night Before is through with the gag.
To send Isaac into a panicky spiral would've been the old way of writing this situation. Instead, his reaction shows perspective that's more in line with the times. Yeah, consenting adults send each other naughty images; just because you prefer the opposite sex doesn't mean gay sexual contact is something to be feared, shamed and/or vilified; male frontal nudity isn't some kind of moral outrage that requires a trigger warning (looking at you, Fifty Shades of Grey).
At its core, The Night Before is a movie about growing up, about letting go of wanton youth and embracing responsibility. It is every bit as sweet as it is raunchy fun, a combination that's a welcome metaphor for where we're headed on the inclusiveness curve in Hollywood studio comedy. And as a bonus, The Night Before shows that there's a way to be inclusive without making it seem like something as normal and everyday as having sex, or expressing sexual desire, should stir terror and alarm.
For too long, Hollywood has gotten by on the excuse that it's the characters' oafishness, their wrongheaded prejudice, that's funny; we're supposed to be laughing at them, not with them. But not everyone will see things that way — and besides, prejudice itself isn't really funny, is it? Especially when you see how the same situation is handled by a character whose first reaction isn't a homophobic seizure.
Yeah, "funny is funny." Funny that doesn't drag a bunch of people down? Way funnier.