Tuesday, August 2, 2016
Don't Think Twice (***)
Written and Directed by Mike Birbiglia
Mike Birbiglia's transformation from cult favorite stand-up comic to filmmaker makes a little bit more sense than Louis CK's. Birbiglia's comedy was always more story-oriented, more of a one-man show than a traditional comedy set. Louis CK's brilliance is in his inertness, and his show, Louie, was always at its best (though certainly not at its funniest) when we really dove into the chaos of his mind. Birbiglia isn't as cerebral a storyteller, but his storytelling interests have a broader appeal. He's not knocking around in his own mind, he's exploring the lives of other people. Unlike CK, he doesn't really have to be brilliant to be entertaining, and his second feature film, Don't Think Twice, is probably one of the better examples of a comedian executing the Woody Allen model. One part autobiography, some parts romance, another part funny. When Woody is at his best, he explores religious and philosophical topics with great alacrity, but when he's simply making a fun film (like Love and Death or Sweet and Lowdown), he comes up with something that looks a lot like Don't Think Twice. The film deals with a comedy improv group called The Commune, a New York City collection of comics all locked into the death stare of their thirties, looking hopelessly for a way toward success while also continuing to put on a seriously funny show. The characters within Don't Think Twice are a very familiar New York City figure, and Birbiglia's film is a melancholy ode to the artists who have the talent but not the luck or the breaks. More than anything, his film is a mature dissection of human relationships, the complications that often come up between friends and loved ones, when the paths of our lives don't always go in the same direction.
Birbiglia plays Miles, a thirty-six year-old member of The Commune, and the group's unofficial leader. The group's most tenured participant, Miles also teaches improv classes to young comedians, some who have even gone on to achieve the success Miles so desperately covets. The rest of the group consists of Bill (Chris Gethard), Allison (Kate Micucci), Lindsay (Tami Saghar), Samantha (Gillian Jacobs) and Jack (Keegan-Michael Key). They play to consistently huge crowds that come for the cheap tickets and the great comedy, but the business model for their venue is quickly falling apart. Soon, it will close and The Commune will have to find a new spot to perform. To make things more complicated, their show gets visited by a producer for legendary comedy variety show Weekend Live (whether Birbiglia couldn't use the name Saturday Night Live, or chose this near-exact facsimile, I do not know), and suddenly the spirit of their performance is compromised. After the show, they learn that Jack and Samantha - and them only - have been granted auditions for Weekend Live, and the group responds in a variety of ways. Miles is perplexed, in a state where his hatred of Weekend Live runs concurrently with his zealous need to make it on (he missed his one chance years before). Bill and Allison, do their best to pool their writing talents together to create a package that the same producers at Weekend Live might love. Lindsay, the daughter of rich parents, struggles with her muted work ethic versus her strong comedic talent. Meanwhile, Jack and Samantha, romantically linked as well, react to their upcoming audition differently. Jack has the kind of self-serving go-getter attitude that usually leads to showbiz success, while Samantha cherishes the simplicity of their current life. The six friends, facing the realities of their lives and the fates of their careers, careen forward, leaving behind broken hearts, hurt feelings, but a lot of funny jokes as well.
Don't Think Twice's reality check is one not shown in many films. There are those who court success and win it, those who don't, those who avoid it all together, and those who never had the talent to begin with. The six characters at the heart of this film all have talent but react to it in different ways. Miles is staring down his upcoming forties, hoping to find something to show for it, while Jack's ambition occasionally blinds him to the success of the group, and the feelings of his friend and girlfriend. Allison's sadness is often ignored as it lays underneath a shield of oddball sarcasm, and Bill questions all of his life choices after his father's life is threatened by a major motorcycle accident. Making it in the entertainment industry is hard enough, it never helps when life gets in the way as well. Birbiglia still has ways to go as a filmmaker, and that's an area where Louis CK is still way ahead. As a director, Birbiglia simply settles for handheld shots as a stale replication of reality. But the writing is strong (to the degree writing does play a process in a film about improv, it's still important to note that Birbiglia's hold of the story and what he wants it to mean is executed very well), and the performances from his ensemble are all unique while holding together the themes of the film. Birbiglia himself is giving a terrific performance of the antsy, insecure Miles. He's unafraid to display Miles' aged grumpiness, his numbing routine of comedy and courting young women from his improv classes turning him slowly into an undesirable. It's a full performance that steadies the course of the film. Don't Think Twice probably does depend a lot on improv in its scene-by-scene progression which would explain its choppiness, but I really like what Birbiglia is doing here. It's a film with a distressing reality of those pursuing the American Dream, but he doesn't forget the humanity here. No one's left unscathed, but no one's left for dead either.