Thursday, September 29, 2016

Don't Think Twice

                                “Has anyone had a particularly bad day?”

                                                              Review by Ken Burke

Take care, curious readers, for plot spoilers gallop rampantly throughout the Two Guys’ insightful reviews.  Therefore, be warned, beware, and read on when you’re ready to be transported to … wherever we end up.  Please protect your eyes from the dazzling brilliance.
                                              Don’t Think Twice (Mike Birbiglia)
A Brooklyn improv troupe of 6 close friends struggling for a larger stage encounters internal struggles when 1, Jack, is hired for TV’s popular Weekend Live with most of the others now even more desperate for a shot at fame except for his lover/show partner, Sam, who’s increasingly content with an obscure level of success; this is a funny, serious, quirky, unique film.
What Happens: 
We begin with brief, off-screen-narration (that's supported by some grainy clips) informing us that improvisational comedy began coming into its own as a separate art form in 1955; then we move on to the actual focus of this film which is an improv group, The Commune, who are working out of a small theatre somewhere in Brooklyn with 2 of the 6, Jack (Keegan-Michael Key) and Sam(antha) (Gillian Jacobs), involved and living together, the others—leader Miles (writer-director Birbiglia), Allison (Kate Micucci), Bill (Chris Gethard), Lindsay (Tami Sagher)—share cramped living quarters, with all of them desperate to find work on the famous TV-sketch-comedy-show, Manhattan-based Weekend Live (an obvious clone of NBC’s extremely-long-running Saturday Night Live).  At one of their shows, which always begin with Sam serving as MC, then asking the question which also serves as the title of this posting—leading into their 1st routine prior to generating others based on requested parameters from the audience—they’re aware that Weekend Live scouts happen to be in attendance so they’re pushing themselves especially hard (with Miles barely able to contain his bitterness that he’s still competing for a bigger showcase with younger members of his troupe [he’s now 36], some of whom he initially met in the classes he teaches to supplement his meager income) but the primal unity of The Commune (based on improv’s 3 fundamental rules—(1) say “yes” to whatever leads your castmates offer, (2) it’s all about the group, (3) don’t think [with the colliery-encouragement, “There are no mistakes,” just responses to be improved upon in future shows]) is broken when Jack starts showboating with his Barack Obama-impersonation, although it does help in getting him and Sam an audition-call for Weekend Live.  They’re scheduled at close times on an upcoming afternoon, but she insists he go on ahead while she completes her focusing-routine.  Sure enough, he's added to the TV cast, although he hasn’t seen Sam until later that night during the group celebration when she admits she got there late, wasn’t even allowed to compete.

 Tensions start growing within the group because all of the others are now pressuring Jack to get them a chance to either audition (Miles did years ago, wasn’t accepted, is frantically-anxious for another chance) or to have their comic-writing-samples read in hopes of at least joining the writing team, but Jack’s sternly advised by another cast member not to make any waves with producer Tim (Seth Barrish), to instead focus on keeping his own job because tenure on the show can be quite short if he's not able to connect well with his much-bigger-audience.  Further, once Jack makes an impact in a skit playing an old-time-ticket-taker in a movie theatre then The Commune’s audiences become increasingly disappointed if he doesn’t show up for these small shows (which he now rarely has time for), so while the group’s on-stage-comedy remains as sharp as ever (these scenes are uniformly hilarious, with Birbiglia admitting in interviews that he shot them both as scripted and done as improv, without revealing which is which in the final edit) they’re getting testier with each other, especially because Lindsay comes from a wealthy family so she’s not taken seriously as struggling as hard as the rest of them while Bill’s on edge because his father’s recently been involved in a major car crash (they all go with him to visit the old man at his hospital, in Philadelphia by what I [thought I] heard but upstate NY according to an account I read).  To make matters worse, Jack’s not getting his skits onto the air so he breaks another cardinal improv rule by bringing a bit to Weekend Live that the troupe previously created on stage (it’s a hit), angering Miles so much he storms into the after-show-party at a bar, punches Jack, gets thrown out, only to find that Lindsay’s now been hired by WL as a writer (which Bill was for oh-so-brief a time years back, a short stay he still bemoans), so the troupe’s dwindling (illustrated at the start of several scenes by the original 6 chairs being set up on stage reduced one at a time before the action begins), although the quick pace and snappy editing continues successfully throughout.

 Conditions worsen as their theatre is forced to close; an attempt to rent a more upscale one doesn’t pay off as now-higher-ticket-prices severely reduce the size of their audience; Bill’s becoming bitter that life isn’t working out as he’d hoped; Allison admits her failure to finish a graphic novel that she’s been intermittently working on for years; Liz (Maggie Kemper)—an old college friend of Miles (she was the impactful performer back then)—shows up, reconnects with Miles after a breakup back at her former home but then confides that she’s pregnant; Sam also has an admission, that she never showed up for the WL audition because she’s happy in the lower-pressure, mostly-under-the-radar-life (however, she has taken over some of Miles’ improv classes, with increasing composure plus her encouragement to the students of “You gotta love each other”); Jack makes another attempt to get Sam noticed by rejoining the troupe for a night, bringing along upcoming-WL-guest-star Ben Stiller (playing himself) but response is falling flat until he has to save it with his new-star-turn-old-man-ticket-taker-routine, but she really doesn’t want the greater exposure anyway.  The Commune essentially collapses with Sam doing one last show by herself before the theatre closes for good, although Jack suddenly shows up to try to help out; they get serious in the middle of the skit, though, with her telling him that she’s happy where she is even though their romance is over.  Next, we’re wrapping it up 8 months later with all wounds healed, everyone visiting Bill, Allison, and Sam at their new theatre (in Philly or wherever, an old porno house being renovated, left to Bill when his father finally died), Jack now a more-secure-star, Liz having had her baby with Miles completing the new family, and Lindsay possibly still on the WL writing staff (but I’m still not clear on that).

So What? If Birbiglia needed another title than Don’t Think Twice to avoid some sort of copyright lawsuit with Bob Dylan (which he wouldn’t have because you can’t copyright a title, but that’s a discussion for another day) he could have called his film Fear and Loathing in Brooklyn (although he might have gotten a cease and desist order on that one from Hunter S. Thompson’s publishers at Random House) because those 2 attributes are a lot of what this oddball-yet-intriguing film is focused on, along with talent, ambition, and frustration.  Based on the trailer and the likely-dramatic-conflict-scenario for such a narrative as this one, you’re not surprised to find both the agonizing sense of personal and career loss felt by Miles as his opportunities for notable success continue to slip away—even as younger members of his troupe are getting the acceptance denied to him—as well as the rising tensions when Jack uses his more flamboyant stage presence (along with that spot-on-Obama-impersonation, although that particular Presidential bit now has only a couple more months of relevance for a topical-humor-TV-show) to get a shot at national exposure while his improv-mates are still struggling to sell tickets in small venues.  However, the unexpected drama of this film that’s far more interesting to me is Sam’s decision to skip her audition, either because she truly believes that she’s happier staying in the minor leagues or because she has a fear of failure 
(or possibly fear of success, but that goes along with the settling-for-less-explanation as related to not having to face the ongoing pressure of staying funny enough, effective enough in roles likely written for you by someone else to maintain public approval in a fickle culture where the unknown, unnoticed masses often take massive delight in the failures of those who aspire to greatness).  

 In the world of improv a flat skit goes with the territory, as audiences know how difficult it is to keep discovering comic gold within the instant-insanity of spontaneous performance so they admire whatever works well, appreciate the strenuous attempts to keep the ball bouncing as it’s slowly losing air.  With live-TV-comedy you may get sympathy votes if you blow lines or break up in the middle of a sketch once in awhile, but overall your persona needs to connect or you’re replaced faster than a receptionist who can’t handle an onslaught of phone calls in a fast-paced-office.

My apologies for the poor visual quality of some of
these photos but I didn't have much to work with.
 I can relate to Sam in her decision to stay away from the harsh, unwavering-glare of the spotlight, no matter if it’s from fear of not being accepted even at the initial stage of this next career-plateau or from a sincere desire to be content as a lower-echelon-coach of others who truly aspire to move on up to those greater heights while she just performs periodically even at times when the circumstances are far less than ideal.  Toward the ending of the film, when the rest of The Commune has chosen to concentrate on other options of somehow making it big (or at least bigger) rather than any further, futile attempts at keeping their declining group project on life-support, she brazenly takes the stage alone, admitting—after an audience prompt—that she’s “had a particularly hard day” herself so she bravely uses her own morbid situation to create a bit where she’s trapped in a well of despair (but down in a hole also), imitating the voices of her departed colleagues tossing advice to her until Jack surprisingly shows up with the intention of giving her the support publically that he’s not lately able to offer privately, although that just leads them to break out of character as well as admit the dead-end-road of their love; we don’t see anything further of that scene, but I imagine it resulted in the shortest show in The Commune’s history.  In similar fashion, I devoted the latter-half of my wage-earning-years 
(after the 1st half in dead-end-AV-support positions or being fired from teaching and media-production jobs) to a more obscure small-college-career rather than trying to leverage the tenure I eventually earned there toward a more-prominent-institution, both because I was good enough at what I was doing at the smaller placein the classroom along with a reasonable amount of decent publicationsand because I never truly had the confidence I could thrive at a large university with the constant pressures of bringing prestige through best-selling-books or sizable-research-grants.  

 Maybe Sam and I both sold ourselves short or maybe we realized that we’d already risen to our best level of achievement, with nothing to be gained from attempting to function elsewhere.  No matter; I was moved by her desire to stay true to herself, just as I could appreciate the agony of Miles and the others who felt they’d never been given a chance in their cutthroat profession to transcend a less-appreciated-art form for one with greater embrace (as well as remuneration).

Bottom Line 
Final Comments: My wife, Nina, has taken improv classes so I asked her how valid she found the situations and cast deliveries to be here, to which she gave a highly-positive-response.  (I’ve tried this only a couple of times—unintentionally on both occasions—the 1st being when I went with a couple of other faculty to accompany some Mills College theatre students on a January-term-trip to Ireland and England to explore various aspects of the performing arts with one afternoon devoted to a master class in acting which pulled all of the accompanying-adults on stage with the students to respond to a series of spontaneous set pieces; the 2nd came when Nina and I went with another couple to one of those murder-mystery-dinners, with various people in the audience recruited into character roles where I became Dr. Feelgood, with little supplied-information on my supposed-background or motives so when a cast member would start questioning me I had to come up with answers on the fly—the amazing thing about that night is I ended up with the Murder Mystery Company’s award for Best Actor, so maybe I have more potential on the stage than I ever realized [as long as I don’t have to bother with the mundane aspect of actually memorizing lines]).  Nina found the Don’t Think Twice presentations on stage (and tensions about always giving an enjoyable performance, even as you're trying to come up with something on the fly) to be very believable, which I later learned is to be expected from these actors because all except Jacobs and Micucci had done improv before, although these 2 trained furiously before filming began in order to appear relaxed on stage, quick with wit, and easily responsive to these fast-evolving-situations.  

 What’s more intriguing about this film, though, is the doubled-edged-sword of a question that looms over all of them (even Sam until she makes her opt-out-decision, as we see her intensely-practicing for the audition, trying to hone her Katharine Hepburn imitation) about whether they’ll ever break out of the so-called-minor-leagues in their quest for national exposure or whether they’ve just wasted their lives to this point in pursuing something that will neither lead to a supportive career nor prepare them for anything else (with a lifetime on Bob Dylan’s "Desolation Row" [original recording on the 1965 Highway 61 Revisited album, this performance from The Bootleg Series Vol. 4: Bob Dylan Live 1966, at London’s Royal Albert Hall] looming in the shadows).

 Given that much more serious subtext—and to further my oft-visited-answer to “What should be my Musical Metaphor to speak to the ultimate impact I’ve encountered with this film?” with some further wisdom taken from Dylan’s immense repertoire (especially if you journeyed through the optional-detour at the end of the last paragraph to listen to one of Bob’s famous tunes)—I’ve gone for what I initially rejected as too-obvious for this story’s Metaphor, Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” (from the 1963 The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan album) for a number of reasons so please let me elaborate them for you.  To begin with, I not only tried in my own mind to reject this song as being too obvious a link to the film in question but I also preceded the screening I saw with a rejection of that idea to one of my viewing companions that the film’s title had some reference to Dylan’s song, assuming it to be purely a coincidence (or a best a pun, based on that 3rd rule of improv that I noted in the What Happens? section’s opening paragraph above: "Don't think."); then, to my surprise, I found a snippet of an instrumental version of the song played on the soundtrack toward the end of the film, so it’s clear that Birbiglia had more of my friend’s assumptions in mind than mine, giving me reason to bring much more of the full song into my commentary.  Further, there’s the reality that this bitter song speaks to heartache, a sense of betrayal, a wistful longing for a better result from a stalled relationship that’s just not going to happen because the singer’s clear to “babe” that “It ain’t no use” from several perspectives, that the now-rejected-woman who got “my heart but […] wanted my soul” is not unlike how Miles felt about Jack and Lindsay, taking the dream that he’d so longed for as they “kinda wasted [his] precious time,” so let me steer you to this live performance (I don’t know where or when) at which on YouTube then flows into another, much longer rendition (especially the harmonica part) from a concert in Cardiff, Wales, U.K. on September 23, 2000 to see if these failed-romance-lyrics evoke what I’ve previously told you about the improv performers’ interactive-murky-travails in the film of Don’t Think Twice.

 Actually, in that last sentence I could have stopped at “in the film,” because the 2 titles aren’t the same, with the song importantly adding “, it’s all right,” which clearly distinguishes the 2 works in different mediums but also adds that critical comma which provides a nice conflict between the implied flow of the words and the cynical delivery of Dylan as singer.  As written (in the song’s title and lyrics) the comma after “twice” implies an begrudging acceptance of the situation by the singer to his lost love, as in the implication that their previous problems of not “talkin’ anyway,” her not “callin’ out” his name, etc. is just how love sometimes slips away, so “You could have done better but I don’t mind,” we’ll just go our separate ways because “it’s all right”; on the liner notes on the back of the original album sleeve Dylan himself says this is a misinterpretation: “A lot of people […] make it a sort of love song—slow and easy going.  But it isn’t a love song.  It’s a statement that maybe you can say to make yourself feel better.  It’s as if you were talking to yourself.  It’s a hard song to sing.  I can sing it sometimes, but I ain’t that good yet. […] I can make myself feel better some times, but at other times, it’s still hard to go to sleep at night.”  As time passes, Miles and the others find a path toward mutual forgiveness that allows all of them to move on in non-Commune-directions, but the depth of conflicted emotions they mix in with truly side-splitting-on-stage-comedy makes Don’t 
Think Twice into a unique, fascinating experience that I’m really happy to recommend (if you can still find it because after 10 weeks in release—I admit it took me much too long to finally see it—it’s barely made a mere $4 million, along with down to showing in just 95 theaters, so maybe keep it in mind for a future spot on your video queue), as were the 99 critics surveyed by Rotten Tomatoes with their whopping 99% positive response, along with an unusually high 83% score from another group of reviewers at Metacrtiic (details on both in the links just below).  

 There’s nothing of lasting-filmic-significance in Don't Think Twice for time-vault-purposes, but it’s still a fine little exploration about the inevitable clashes between talent and ambition, with the likely human toll to be taken once some notable upward movement finally comes along with its glorious chances for recognition and success but usually just for some in any given group, not all.*

*A last other thing to quickly note before we bid adieu until next we meet is that Miles and Liz had known each other in Naperville, IL (near Chicago), seemingly while they were theatre-major-undergrads together, which could likely have put them at North Central College (although research shows me that there are 96 colleges within 50 miles of Naperville, so maybe I’m assuming too much), which I mention only because one of Two Guys’ most faithful readers, my friend Roger Smitter, taught there for a number of years (in Communication and Media Studies, rather than Art and Theatre, though) so if this had all been real he could have caught one of what Miles describes as Liz’s stunning performances.  (Birbiglia doesn’t specify North Central College but admits he’s used Naperville just because he found the name to be funny; whaddya think of that, Roger?)
Related Links Which You Might Find Interesting:
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Here’s more information about Don’t Think Twice: (29:28 interview with writer-director/actor Mike Birbiglia and actors Tami Sagher, Kate Micucci, Gillian Jacobs, Keegan-Michael Key)

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By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile. Ken

P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.

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