Saturday, August 20, 2016

It's All About The Group: DON'T THINK TWICE (2016)

"Dying is easy. Comedy is hard."
That's a saying among actors, writers, stand up comedians, and that even more rarified subculture, improv performers. Anyone who has taken a comedy improv class can attest that it takes a certain kind of talent to be able to perform in front of a audience without any pre-planned scenes, much less a script. Most improv shows involve the group onstage, often known as a troupe, taking suggestions from the audience for a setting or occupation which the performers will use as a starting off point to create a (hopefully) funny scenario right off the top of their heads. Though improvisation is almost always associated with comedy, the talent required to keep a scene going even when the audience is looking on in stony silence is serious business. There are rules to this particular craft and to break them is not only a disservice to the task at hand but also disrespectful of the group as a whole.
Comedian and writer Mike Birbiglia's new film DON'T THINK TWICE is a fictional, but very funny and knowing glimpse into the subculture of these daredevil performers who are hoping to become the next Melissa McCarthy or Will Ferrell. Prior to introducing a fledgling troupe called The Commune who perform every week in their tiny theater in the comedy metropolis that is New York City, Birbiglia sets a very reverent tone of this unique subculture by beginning the film with a brief history of the creation of improvisational comedy from the 1950s to today using actual clips of performers from the pre-Second City and Saturday Night Live years. He also sets up the draconian rules of improv: 1. Always say yes in a scene. 2. Don't think, just act and 3. It's all about the group.
We first see The Commune players backstage as they prepare for the evening's performance. Everyone has the jitters but as they engage in their pre-show warm-up games it's clear that they are also a tight-knit group of friends who, as their group mantra dictates, has each other's backs. As is the case with many troupes, The Commune exudes a very familial vibe albeit a dysfunctional one. The group consists of the pretty and seemingly fearless Samantha ("Community's" Gillian Jacobs) her showboating boyfriend Jack (Keegan Michael Key) nerdy aspiring cartoonist Allison (Kate Micucci) nerdy but unpredictable goofball Bill (Chris Gethard) pot-smoking trust fund baby Lindsay (Tami Sagher) and their brilliant but jaded leader Miles (Birbiglia.) Being New York comedy performers, the group members all share the same goal - to get cast on "Weekend Live," the film's fictional stand-in for "SNL."
For most of the players getting to audition for the show is a mere fantasy while for starry-eyed Jack and the weary improv veteran Miles, who whiffed an earlier audition for the show, it's an outright obsession. When word leaks backstage that some people from "Weekend Live" are in the audience that night, the actors all know this is their shot at the brass ring. However only two of them get the call to audition for "WL" and from there on the group's dynamic begins to shift and their bond slowly begins to falter. Think of what the other members of Destiny's Child must have felt while watching their bandmate Beyonce take off into the stratosphere.
Birbiglia plainly has genuine insight into this world though the goings on behind the scenes "Weekend Live" doesn't paint the comedy institution it is modeled after in a very favorable light. Whether this is meant as an editorial for the writer-director is unclear but it's the only aspect of "Don't Think Twice" that feels contrived. There are countless films, from "All About Eve" to "Showgirls," that equate success in show biz with having to compromise one's integrity and for a movie that is so knowledgeable about the world it is shedding light upon, its unflattering depiction of "SNL" just feels kind of obvious. "SNL" creator Lorne Michaels would no doubt not be very amused by the portrayal of the fictional show's executive producer Timothy (Seth Barrish) who speaks in a similar clipped, Canadian-inflected, monotone to Michaels. Then again, both Mike Meyers and The Kids In The Hall (all Canadian by the way) have lampooned Michael's notoriously odd idiosyncracies and Machiavellian demeanor in their own films so maybe Birbiglia is just calling it as he sees it.
Still however, the movie is very funny and even poignant at times. Though Miles is the captain of the ship, Samantha's haphazard journey is the real centerpiece of the film and Jacobs' performance is both very grounded and real. The teacher and guru Del Close, who in the movie and in real life is regarded as the Obi-Wan Kenobi of improv comedy, defined the craft as "portraying truth under extraordinary circumstances," and DON'T THINK TWICE provides a fascinating peek behind the curtain of this world of dreamers and potential superstars who thrive on walking the tightrope hand in hand, night after night, without a net or the crippling fear of going down in flames, because no matter what, the group will always have one another to fall on.

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