“Don’t Think Twice”
The Film Arcade
1 hour, 32 minutes
This week, as the theaters seem to be holding their breath in anticipation of “Star Wars: Rogue One” coming out on the 16th of this month, nothing new was released.
Well, that’s not exactly true — if you live in L.A. or New York, you could have gone to see the new Natalie Portman psychological portrait of the late First Lady, “Jackie,” or you could have gone to see the new Mike Birbiglia film “Don’t Think Twice.” As I live in neither L.A. or New York, “Jackie” was out, but luckily “Don’t Think Twice” is part of the new vanguard of movies that are released in theaters and online simultaneously, so I was able to stream it.
Some of you (most, probably) are thinking, “Mike Birbiglia? Who?” Granted, he’s not exactly a household name, but if you’ve spent any time listening to public radio, or more specifically, “This American Life,” you’ve probably heard him. A writer, producer, and comedian, Birbiglia made a minor splash in the indie film world a few years back with his cinematic memoir “Sleepwalk with Me.” That film, about a man whose crippling fear of commitment manifests itself into a debilitating sleep disorder, evolved from a live stage show, which in turn evolved from stories told on “This American Life.” Sounds like a real laugh riot, but actually the movie is sweet, funny, and really thoughtful.
“Don’t Think Twice” represents Birbiglia’s shot at more mainstream success, though this film is still definitely an indie comedy. The story revolves around an improv group called “The Commune.” This ragtag bunch of quirky individualists scrape out a meager living in New York during the day, but at night they are legends.
Well, maybe legends is too strong a word. They’re improv artists, and in their tiny theater they spin comic gold out of everyday real situations on the fly. In these fleeting, momentary triumphs, they are truly successful, in ways they never can be during their regular life. That is, unless they can land the most coveted gig in the country. A spot on “Weekend Live,” the long-running comedy sketch show that can make or break a comedian.
The Commune consists of Birbiglia’s Miles, a delusional improv instructor who shares an apartment with some of his fellow comedians — Alison, Lindsay, and Bill. In addition, there are Jack and Samantha, the perfect couple and two of the most talented members of the group. The Commune is a tight-knit group, until Jack, played by Keegan Michael Key, is suddenly given his shot, winning a place on “Weekend Live.” Slowly, jealousy and bitterness overtake the group and things begin to unravel. Is success all it’s cracked up to be? Or is there a purer form of success than “making it big”?
I wanted to like this movie more than I did. There is certainly a lot to like. The acting, directing and writing are all top-notch. There’s no wonder this film recently had a 99 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. It’s very well made.
The problem is I don’t really want to spend a lot of time with the people in it. In normal mode, the group of friends is neurotic and cynical, but fairly happy. But once the jealousy begins to take over, I began to see them for the self-interested, venal people they are. I feel like the movie is trying to suggest that Jack’s taking “Weekend Live” over “The Commune” was a mistake, a decision he’ll have to live with — that Jack’s character is the tragic one here. But I identified most with Jack, a hard-worker who comes to the unpleasant realization that he’s going from being a big fish in a small pond, to being a minnow in an ocean. This is not a tale of the star who forgets who he is and where he came from once he makes it big. Jack doesn’t leave his friends, they leave him.
“Don’t Think Twice” feels like a fantasy. It’s a dream I’ve had myself. When you’re in the middle of a run of a performance and everything is clicking, you think to yourself, “Wow. Why can’t I do this full-time? Wouldn’t it be fun to have my days free, show up at five, prep the show, hang out with my friends, go out and make people laugh for an hour and a half, then do it all again the next day.”
But it’s not real. That life doesn’t really exist unless, like two of the characters in the film, you have parents or a spouse with a lot of money who can front that dream for you. Birbiglia and crew want to have it both ways, to be sort of Bohemian performers who don’t sully themselves looking for financial success or fame but still are able to perform every night. One of the characters bitterly opines, “I think your twenties are for having dreams, and your thirties are for realizing how stupid it was to dream.”
At the end of the film, this character is proven wrong, but I think the problem is with the premise itself. Dreams are never stupid, but what happens is that you either figure out a way to make enough money to perform for a living (i.e. getting a steady gig like a television show) or you don’t — in which case you find a job that makes you happy and allows you the freedom to perform occasionally (like the hobby it is). Life doesn’t have to be bitter and people don’t have to be selfish. I hope as Mike Birbiglia starts to achieve some of that very same financial success he seems to be terrified of, he realizes that.
“Don’t Think Twice” is rated R for language.
Chris Jenness is an art teacher, freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.