Friday, August 26, 2016
EVERYBODY CAN'T BE ON TOP: a review of "Don't Think Twice"
Written and Directed by Mike Birbiglia
**** (four stars)
It was at the end of the summer four years ago, when I was inspired to see and was happily surprised by Writer/Director Mike Birbigia's semi-autobiographical filmmaking debut "Sleepwalk With Me" (2012), a film I described as being a "smart, unique, entertaining, often hilarious and subtly moving tale, that above all else, celebrates the art the comes with expert storytelling." Now, nearing the conclusion of what has been an ultimately disenchanting and dismal summer movie season, Birbiglia returns with "Don't Think Twice," his excellent, creatively bar raising follow-up feature, which announces his cinematic arrival so fully that this just may be one of the best films that I have seen in 2016, so far.
The wonderment of "Don't Think Twice" should not be undersold to you, due to the increasing rarity of films like this one being offered to the public in our multiplexes in favor of all manner of costumed characters and bombastic CGI yawn fests being shoved into our eyes at the expense of nearly any other kind of feature films being made. With this film, Mike Birbiglia, a longtime stand-up comedian and writer, has crafted and expertly perceptive and most importantly, character driven backstage drama where the comedy truly stings, the nearly constant discomfort provides palpable and often heartbreaking tension as we are given a front row seat to the inner circle of six friends/aspiring artists who wish for nothing more than the betterment of each other as long as success does not elude them all. If "Sleepwalk With Me" was Birbiglia's calling card, "Don't Think Twice" should fully and deservedly, raise his public notoriety as a creative cinematic force who can exist quite easily alongside the likes of Woody Allen, Nicole Holofcener and Richard Linklater. Yes, Birbiglia is that good and so indeed is his terrific film.
"Don't Think Twice" stars Mike Birbiglia as Miles, a member of the New York improvisational comedy troupe The Commune, a sextet who (somewhat) harmoniously work as well as live together, sustaining themselves on their live comedy performances that celebrate the inventiveness and instantaneous art and magic of being creatively inspired on the spot in front of an audience while also hoping and wishing for that big break that has so far eluded all of them.
Stuck in dead-end day jobs and with news that their home theater is soon to be demolished in one month's time, the pressure increases for The Commune and reaches a fever pitch when they are informed that representatives of "Weekend Live," a "Saturday Night Live" styled comedy show, will be attending a performance for a new casting search for performers and writers. Suddenly, the groups's "all for one, one for all" mission becomes threatened as standout player Jack Mercer (played by Keegan-Michael Key), is immediately warned by Miles to not one-up his castmates in pursuit of the greater glory.
Regardless, both Jack and his girlfriend Samantha (Gillian Jacobs from television's "Community") are requested for auditions, while hopeful graphic novelist Allison (Kate Micucci), wayward rich girl/aspiring writer Lindsay (Tami Sagher), Bill (Chris Gethard), who is stressed due to caring for an ailing parent and Miles himself, ironically the one who teaches an improv comedy class and has personally trained the entire troupe, are not. When Jack is ultimately cast on "Weekend Live," what was once familial becomes filled with jealousy, envy, disappointments and resentments that threaten to break The Commune apart forever.
For a film set within the world of improvisational comedy, as well as one that features many sequences of The Commune live on stage in their struggling theater, Mike Birbiglia's "Don't Think Twice" is probably the saddest film that I have ever seen about the nature of the comedic creative mindset and profession. Now, I do not mean that Birbiglia has crafted an experience that drifts towards the more melodramatic of something like David Seltzer's "Punchline" (1988), Billy Crystal's "Mr. Saturday Night" (1992) or nearly as devastating as Richard Pryor's flawed but brutally open hearted "Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling" (1986).
For me, I felt that Birbiglia concocted an effort that could stand powerfully shoulder to shoulder with Judd Apatow's undervalued "Funny People" (2009) and Chris Rock's criminally underseen "Top Five" (2014), as "Don't Think Twice" carries itself with a matter-of-fact quality that never forces any of the comedy or drama because Birbiglia is wise enough as a storyteller and filmmaker to understand that all of the joy and pain is completely inherent in the story he wishes to present, allowing all of the themes and emotions to reveal themselves organically, through Birbiglia's sharp yet fully empathetic writing and direction and the pitch perfect performances from his entire cast.
Most certainly, "Don't Think Twice" is a tale of envy among friends, provocatively so and without even a trace of any in-authenticity or predictability. In a sense, Birbiglia provides us with the sense of one-upsmanship that sits at the heart of the stand up comedy world, as each comedian is striving to make their individualistic mark in a world just bursting with hopeful talents. Within the confines of The Commune, that veritable sense of competition is ever present even as much as all six members try their damnedest to not allow it to interfere with their creativity.
But such as it is, Birbiglia showcases how their backstage preparations, while pure, are often quite unctuous, as they are trying to clearly impress and even outdo each other before racing the stage, embracing each other while expressing "Got your back!" repeatedly to each other, fully noting the complete collaborative effort of their performances. Yes, once word arrives that "Weekend Live" will be in the house, measures of self-preservation and survival within such a precariously cut-throat industry instantly rears its ugly head as Jack takes the spotlight for himself in the guise of collaboration. Within those moments, Mike Birbiglia brilliantly blurs the lines between professional and creative honestly and falsehoods, which will then fuel the motivations for all of the film's characters for the remainder of "Don't Think Twice."
When Jack is cast on "Weekend Live," Birbiglia presents his Commune castmates painfully reading the news on the internet and even as they watch him perform on nationwide live television each week and do sincerely wish him well, you also realize that they are secretly hoping for him to fail, questioning why they were not chosen instead of him and consistently request if he would be able to put in good words for them. This aspect, in turn, gives Birbiglia wonderful opportunities to illustrate Jack's dilemma with not only sudden national fame without his friends but how his fame now affects The Commune's live performances as their audiences now wish for Jack to not only return to the stage but to endlessly reprise his now famous television characters. And now armed with famous friends like Ben Stiller (who makes a cameo appearance), Jack additionally struggles with the nature of success on a tougher level than he ever anticipated, where competition is fiercer, the stress for survival is higher and the rewards just may be fewer.
On an even deeper level is the film's extremely touching love story between Jack and Samantha, who indeed was not chosen for "Weekend Live," and possibly never even wanted the show in the first place, which reveals feelings of guilt for Jack and feeling increasingly misunderstood for Samantha and the two of them threatening to drift apart into completely separate lives. Again, I deeply appreciated how Birbiglia never over-played even one moment between Jack and Samantha, allowing their respective character arcs to unfold as naturally as life and also giving them tough questions to ask of themselves and each other and without providing any easy answers.
The level of envy feels to run the highest for Miles, who repeatedly proclaims that he was just this close to finding himself cast upon "Weekend Live" years earlier but was not chosen and is simply seething that the ones he has taught himself have out paced him in the world he feels to love more than any other members of The Commune. And yet, the 36 year old Miles is himself caught within a state of arrested development, living with the members of The Commune in what is essentially an extension of college dorm life (he even sleeps in a wooden elevated loft bed), and perpetually bedding 22 year female students from his improv classes until he strikes up a new relationship with a former high school crush, an event that may push him towards a greater maturity, if he chooses to accept it.
And even further, Birbiglia presents the inspirational hunger for all of the characters who seem to thrive within this live setting that exists without a net, the camaraderie when all members are present, the sadness when all members are not, as elegantly displayed through Birbiglia's motif of a set of chairs onstage that increase or even decrease in number depending on the performance. There is true danger within the setting of improvisational comedy, the threat of complete failure and the utter brilliance of individuals brave, creative and funny enough to even want to repeatedly attempt something that feels to be impossible.
It's..ahem...funny, but even with so many sequences within the film presenting The Commune, clearly inspired by the likes of Chicago's Second City as well as The Upright Citizen's Brigade, on stage, I was surprised at how little I actually laughed during those scenes as I happened to not find The Commune to be that particularly funny at all. Now this quality is not a fault of the film in any way. In fact, and in addition to their level of funniness being determined by each and every viewer of the film, Birbiglia is displaying for all of us just how difficult improvisational comedy actually is. That the kind of comedy that we can see within the fully improvised films of Christopher Guest or on and Larry David's "Curb Your Enthusiasm" arrives from an uncanny creative, comedic, rapidly fast and unquestionably fluid mental agility that not just anyone can possibly accomplish. It is indeed high-wire comedy, the kind of which can only exist within the moment before it is gone forever.
And that, dear readers, is the exceedingly poignant core of "Don't Think Twice," creating and existing within moments that are not designed to last. Birbiglia has indeed created a film that is not only bittersweet but also elegiac as we are witness to the potential endings of friendships, romantic relationships, the closing of a cherished yet run down theater, and finally, the individual hopes and dreams of our cast of characters. Yes, sometimes, as the adage proclaims, we laugh so that we may not cry but for "Don't Think Twice," whatever tears that do fall, Mike Birbiglia richly earns each and every one.
Mike Birbiglia's "Don't Twink Twice" is a handsomely rewarding slice-of-life comedy/drama that carries no stitch of prefabricated intentions or plot threads but is filled copiously with smart, savvy, creative characters all trying and often failing to do right by themselves and for the people closest to them. This is not a film with any villains, although our cast often hurt each other while trying to advance themselves and despite their best intentions to the contrary. And most of all, it captures the turbulence, for better or worse, contained within every moment of decision, either in comedy or within life itself, every moment that is here and gone in less than a second but has the power to reverberate infinitely.
Mike Birbiglia, you have truly risen through the ranks to become one of cinema's most unique, fresh and refreshing voices.