Sunday, September 25, 2016

Don't Think Twice

Alternate Title:  The Delusion of Spontaneity
One sentence synopsis:   Six underground improv comedians find their troupe turned upside down when one of them is picked to join the cast of an SNL-style network sketch show.

Things Havoc liked: "Dying is easy," said Edmund Gwenn (Santa, from the 1947 Miracle on 34th St). "Comedy is Hard." Or maybe he didn't say it, and Jack Lemmon or Gregory Peck or Milton Berle made it up. Nobody's really sure. But whoever said it was absolutely right, because comedy is fraught with peril. A bad drama, for instance, or a horror film that fails to horrify, can at least take solace in being unintentionally hillarious, and thereby become a staple of midnight screenings and cult followings forever (consider Plan 9 From Outer Space, or The Room). Such infamies are not what one sets out to make, generally speaking, but they can still provide entertainment and joy to their audience. A bad comedy however, leaves one with nowhere to go, because it fundamentally isn't funny. There is no safety net, no backup plan for comedy. It fails or succeeds entirely of its own merits, as what it was intended to be. The prospect must be terrifying. And yet people keep throwing themselves into comedy, including several that I have now seen repeatedly in these little weekly excursions of mine to the theater.

One such person is Keegan-Michael Key, the taller half of the comedy duo Key & Peale, who graced us earlier this year with their first foray into filmmaking, Keanu. Keanu was a fun little movie, and so I decided that it was a good idea to see what he and a number of other talented comedians had to offer, among them Kate Micucci, of half a dozen TV shows that even I know about, and Tami Sagher, a comedy writer for 30 Rock, MadTV, and Inside Amy Schumer. Top everything off with a 99% Rotten Tomatoes rating (I'm not kidding), and it seemed like a good time.

Things Havoc disliked: So... you know how I was talking about bad comedy a minute ago? Yeah...

Don't Think Twice is a bad comedy, but more than a bad comedy it's a continuation of a trend that has become a full blown epidemic this year, of movies that every critic on Earth rates highly turning out to be pieces of crap. Sometimes they're just mediocre, sometimes they're unwatchably awful, but always they're the sorts of movies that the critics like to fawn over because it makes them seem superior to the unwashed masses. Normally I just remark on this when it happens. Taste is subjective, after all, and critics can simply be wrong sometimes. I'm the guy who praised Suckerpunch, remember? But subjectivity ceases to be a defense when literally everybody praises the movie in immodest tones, like it's the second coming of the medium of film, and all those who fail to see it are dooming themselves to lives of deprivation and despair. Kubo got this kind of reaction, and High Rise, and The Lobster, and Hail Caesar, and I am getting very, very tired of it. I try to see movies because they appeal to me, because they look interesting or daring, and not to be influenced by the critical opinion on a movie, but it's hard to ignore sometimes, particularly when every other critic in the world is lauding something to the skies and pronouncing it the finest film to ever grace the screen. And for the same critics to then turn around and declare that the aforementioned films are better than things like Deadpool or Triple 9 because the subject matter of the latter is not as artistic or intellectual is flat out dishonesty. One bad film I can forgive. Three I can understand. But a dozen movies in a row starts to look like either incompetence or gross bias on the part of those who get paid for this sort of thing.

*Sigh* So, the movie...

Don't Think Twice is an improv comedy, about a troupe of players in New York who are distinctly small-time, but have the passion (maaaan). And because many of the comedians involved are good comedians (I haven't mentioned Gillian Jacobs or Chris Gethard yet), you'd expect some decent improv at least. Well no such luck here, because the improv on display from these starving artist players is shit. Boring, unfunny, uninteresting shit. And I don't wanna hear about how hard improv comedy is, because I've seen much much better stuff from local troupes around here in San Francisco, to say nothing of things like Second City or Whose Line is it Anyway. Hell, the comedians here had it easy! They could have either scripted the stuff, or if that was too artificial, done what a lot of troupes do and done a lot of improv, so as to cherry pick the best bits to be shown in the film. Instead, we get "comedy" that would be booed off the stage at a third rate amateur club. There is one, I repeat one funny bit in the movie (a routine involving the appearance of imaginary friends to a twice-divorced man in his fifties). All the rest of the comedy is barely chuckle-worthy, the kind of stuff you laugh politely at if you are related to the people involved, and otherwise check your watch a lot. And yet, we are expected to believe that this awful material of theirs is good enough that the players involved (but only some of them) are invited to audition for "Weekend Live", an SNL-knockoff looking for new talent. Admittedly, this conceit does allow for Seth Barrish, a veteran film and stage actor, to do an absolutely dead-on sendup to SNL's Lorne Michaels. But mostly, it's used for, of all things, melodrama.

Oh. My. God. Is there melodrama in this movie. You see, only one of the six players in the troupe (Key) can join SNL, and once they do so, what happens but terrible rifts and falling out. You see, it's not good enough for the other comedians to get jealous of the success of their friend, they have to have BIG DRAMATIC SPEECHES about how their friend has changed, how success has gone to their heads, how they have forgotten their roots (maaaan), and are now soulless and lost. Yes, these speeches are intended to showcase the insecurities of the other troupe members more than reflect the reality of the film, but they are so far over the top that they destroy the entire dynamic of "plucky group of friends trying to succeed at comedy" that the film has been desperately trying to build. Nobody capable of literally punching their friend in the face for having failed to secure them a guaranteed audition could possibly have been stable enough to have been a member of a troupe like this in the first place, and I don't care how "quirky" the film wants to make all comedians look. This is a movie about assholes acting over-dramatically and occasionally pausing so that you can laugh. Sound fun?

And whose fault is all of this? Well I can't know for sure, but my guess would be Mike Birbiglia, a claim I make based on the fact that he produced, wrote, directed, and stars in this movie. We met Birbiglia way back when in Sleepwalk with Me, a movie whose biggest flaw was simply being too awkward. Well Birbiglia has graduated now from being uncomfortably awkward to painfully awkward, with a good heaping scoop of narcissism piled on. Not content with mining the vein of betrayal (maaaan), Birbiglia has to give everyone a series of melodrama staples to pout and stare sadly out windows about, from the cast member whose father is dying, to the cast member who is living off her parents, to the cast member who is a slacker and depressed, to the cast member struggling to grow up. In a film that was toned bittersweet, where the comedy was an intentional juxtaposition with the misery of the characters' lives, in short in an actual drama, this might have worked. But Don't Think Twice is pitched, paced, written, and shot like a slapstick comedy without the slapstick, and consequently falls flat on its face. Only this time, there's nobody to laugh.

Final thoughts:   I am probably angrier at this movie than I should be, because the base fact is that Don't Think Twice isn't an awful film, just one so painfully mediocre as to render one exhausted with the entire thing. But what annoys me about this movie isn't simply that it failed, it's that it represents arrogance at every level, arrogance necessary to stuff a comedy full of melodrama in the belief that one's life (or facsimile thereof) is so fascinating that everyone will immediately hold tremendous sympathy for all of your travails. This particular type of arrogance has bitten Birbiglia before, and this time it proves so insurmountable that the entire film is wrecked upon it. And as to those who called this movie "Laugh-out-Loud funny" or "genuinely moving", all I can suggest that you stick to your "counterprogramming" and railing incessantly against how dumbed down Hollywood has become, go see your quirky indie movies made by the right directors and praised by the right publications, and leave me to watch actually good movies in peace, if ever there are any to be found in this miserable year.

Final Score:  4/10

Next Time:  Let's see if the Greatest Actor in the World is up to the task of turning things around.

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