Criterion’s “Muriel” + “A Tale of Love and Darkness” + Tracy Droz Tragos x2 at “Hammer to Nail”

H2N - 2016-08-23

In the past two weeks, Hammer to Nail published three reviews of mine – of two movies just released and one brand-new Criterion Collection Blu-ray disc – plus one interview, with director Tracy Droz Tragos (whose latest documentary, Abortion: Stories Women Tell, was one of my reviews). Here are the links to all four pieces:

Enjoy!

“Roughly Speaking” Podcast on Hollywood Epics, “Ben-Hur,” “Hell or High Water” and “War Dogs”

Rodricks August 19 2016

Today, Linda DeLibero – Director, Film and Media Studies, Johns Hopkins University – and Christopher Llewellyn Reed (that’s me) – Chair and Professor, Department of Film & Moving Image, Stevenson University – join Dan Rodricks on his Baltimore Sun podcast, “Roughly Speaking,” where we discussed three films out in theaters this weekend – Hell or High Water, War Dogs and a new version of Ben-Hur – using the release of the latter as a springboard for a larger conversation about the history of Hollywood epics. Here is the link to the show. Enjoy!

“Hell or High Water” Is a Brilliant Existential Western Crime Thriller

Hell or High Water

Hell or High Water (David Mackenzie, 2016)

It’s early morning in West Texas. The camera drifts lazily over and through the low-rise buildings of a small town, nondescript and empty in the morning. A patch of graffiti reads “3 Tours in Iraq, but no bailout for people like us.” We travel through a parking lot and come to rest on a bank entrance, where a lone woman approaches the door, pulling out her keys. She’s the first employee of the day. Suddenly, from behind, come two masked men, who push her roughly inside. And so begins Hell or High Water, where riches will be sought, Robin Hood-style, from those who have stolen them. Our protagonists may be bank robbers, but the villains here are the forces of society that steal from the poor to make the rich richer. That graffiti we passed by is more than just a random happenstance: it’s the theme of the film.

The truth of who’s right and who’s wrong is, fortunately, a lot more complicated than that – and of what importance is right or wrong in a good narrative, anyway, as long as the characters believe in what they’re doing? – or we’d have a movie far too simple for its own good. Instead, what we get, courtesy of director David Mackenzie (Starred Up) and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan (Sicario) is a morally complex tale of economic and existential survival masquerading as a damn fine bank-heist thriller. Brothers Tanner (Ben Foster, Lone Survivor) and Toby (Chris Pine, Star Trek Beyond) need a lot of money quickly, for reasons soon to be explained. Tanner is the wild card, just out of prison; Toby’s a divorced father of two, calmer and brighter than his older sibling, but in need of his ruthlessness. As they make their way through a series of attacks on banks, which go off with varying degrees of success, they attract the attention of a pair of Texas Rangers, played by Jeff Bridges (True Grit) and Gil Birmingham (California Indian). The Rangers are yin to the brothers’ yang, patiently tracking them down, trading (mostly affectionate) barbs as they go; two sets of partners with whom we spend almost equal time, dividing our loyalties. It’s Birmingham’s Alberto – of Native-American descent – who seems to most understand the brothers’ motivation, as he likens their plight to that of all conquered people. If it’s not the White Man putting you down, it’s the banks, who go after all the poor, regardless of race.

It’s a deeply satisfying film that mixes genres – crime, Western, epic drama – in a brilliant combination that keeps us guessing how it will all turn out until the very end. There are great – if also devastating – surprises in store and, most importantly, a wonderful sense of plot and character development that is often missing in some of the bigger movies of our day: unlike in, say, the last Marvel movie, here we care deeply about the fate of all involved. Foster and Pine are both terrific, as are Bridges (doing his old-man thing, but doing it well) and, especially, Birmingham, an underused actor (perhaps best known to most viewers as Billy Black in the Twilight films) who here gets a chance to shine. A deceptively small movie, set in vast and desolate landscapes, Hell or High Water deals with important themes relevant to our day and age, all the while entertaining the “hell” out of you. Go see it.

“War Dogs” Offers Mostly Great Satire of Our Military/Industrial Complex

War Dogs

War Dogs (Todd Phillips, 2016)

Todd Phillips is the man responsible for giving us all three Hangover films. I loved the first one but hated the second, and therefore avoided the third. As they went along (at least from #1 to #2), their humor degraded from boundary-pushing to just plain vicious, as the protagonists’ antics and attendant jokes grew more and more desperate to transgress at any cost. While it was easy to laugh off the loss of a dentist’s tooth in part one, the loss of a pianist’s finger in part two was not nearly as amusing. I shudder to think what happened in part three. Still, in that first film, anyway, Phillips demonstrated a solid ability to mix action and comedy that boded well should he find or write a better script.

And now we have War Dogs, co-written by Phillips, Stephen Chin (Another Day in Paradise) and Jason Smilovic (Lucky Number Slevin) – based on the true-life tale profiled in a Rolling Stone article, later turned into a book, by Guy Lawson – and starring Jonah Hill (22 Jump Street) and Miles Teller (Whiplash) as twenty-something arms merchants. It is that better script, funny where it should be and not afraid to tackle larger themes beyond the scatological: a bitingly satirical look at the way we operate our military conflicts, offering contracts to any and all comers without any moral concerns over the provenance of the weapons. As an opening montage makes clear, war is an economy, much as Dwight Eisenhower warned it would become; as long as the merchandise arrives on time and operates as expected, everyone’s happy.

Hill and Teller are Efraim and David, childhood friends who reconnect in their 20s. David’s stuck in a tailspin, working as a massage therapist in Miami Beach while he tries to get an ill-fated business project – selling quality sheets to nursing homes – off the ground. Efraim is just back from Los Angeles, where he and his father have been operating a gun-repossession business, selling confiscated weapons back to law enforcement (I think, but the details of that particular set-up don’t really matter). Now he’s ready to move on up to the big time, taking advantage of the U.S. government’s legal obligation to allow bids on weapons contracts to small operators in the wake of legal problems due to Halliburton subsidiary KBR previously earning all the money. He needs a partner, and David, about to be a father, needs better prospects. Soon, given the army’s never-ending demand for weapons and ammunition, they’re off and running, though an initial snafu sends them into an actual war zone to recuperate and then deliver a batch of promised guns. It’s in that sequence that Phillips brings his trademark mix of comedy and action most to bear, pulling off a series of tour-de-force moments that are both thrilling, hilarious, and very disturbing.

Eventually, the too-good-to-be-true scheme falls apart, but not before Efraim and David have made a lot of money and had a good time. They get in over their heads thanks to a shady international arms dealer played by Bradley Cooper (American Sniper), whose amorality makes Efraim and David look like Boy Scouts. Cooper is chilling as a man for whom nothing is off limits, even through (or perhaps because) he looks and talks like a hedge-fund manager. Both Hill and Teller are equally strong, and even Ana de Armas (Knock Knock), in an underwritten part as David’s girlfriend (and mother to his child), gets a chance to shine in a few select scenes. The movie is far from perfect – I wish it had kept its satirical edge right up to the end, rather than embracing a sentimental takedown of its ostensible heroes – but is made with such energy and brio, all the while illuminating the seedy underbelly of American arms dealing, that its flaws pale in comparison to what works. 

“Ben-Hur” Fails to Champion Its Raison d’Etre

Ben-Hur

Ben-Hur (Timur Bekmambetov, 2016)

American Civil War Hero Lewis Wallace – or General Lew Wallace, as he is most often known – published what would become a mega-bestseller, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, in 1880. It told the fictional story of a Jewish prince of Jerusalem, Judah Ben-Hur, in the years of Jesus Christ’s preaching, who is betrayed by a childhood friend, Messala, a Roman who sentences him to certain death. Like the hero of another 19th-century epic –  Alexandre Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo – he escapes after a long imprisonment, later to return and exact his revenge upon his would-be executioner. Such retribution takes the form of a victory in the chariot races of the Roman circus, during which an accident cripples Messala, who dies thereafter. Where does Christ enter into of all this? At repeated intervals of the novel, Judah crosses paths with the rising prophet, until finally his story and that of the messiah’s intersect at the crucifixion of the latter, leading to Judah’s conversion to the nascent new religion. Vengeance is not yours to wreak, sayeth the newly resurrected God. And so Judah rises from the ashes of his former life, reunited with his once-lost family, and embraces a hopeful future.

The first time Wallace’s book was brought to the silver screen was in 1907, and then, as ever, the major set piece was that chariot race. When, in 1925, Louis B. Mayer’s freshly constituted MGM Studios took on a feature-length version, starring Ramon Novarro as the titular prince, it became, with its $4 million budget,  the most expensive silent film ever made, up to that point. Why? It costs a lot of money to build that circus! But it paid off, saving the studio’s fortunes, and the brilliantly realized race sequence was justly celebrated for years to come. Then, in 1959, MGM – again in need of a big hit – took on the epic story once more, now with the great William Wyler (The Best Years of Our Lives) at the helm and the ever-solid Charlton Heston (The Ten Commandments) in the chariot. This time, the circus sequence, alone, cost $4 million. Still, it was all worth it, as the new film went on to win 11 Academy Awards, a record matched only, as of this writing, by Titanic and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (when epic films win Best Picture, they tend to clean up, since they also win so many of the technical awards, as well). As with the 1925 silent version, what has never failed to impress viewers – even those, like me, who find much of the other parts extremely dated in their aesthetic – since that time is the magnificence of the sets and the masterful mise-en-scène of the chariot race.

And now here we are, in 2016, with a brand new retelling of the 136-year-old classic. Religiously minded husband-and-wife producers Mark Burnett and Roma Downey (The Bible mini-series), working with Russian-Kazakh director Timur Bekmambetov (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter), have decided that what the world needs now is another version of Wallace’s story. Why not? So much else gets remade. But as with all storytelling, old, new or an amalgam of both, what counts is the central premise – or raison d’être – behind the endeavor. Is there an idea beyond the mercenary? According to Burnett and Downey, there is: to salve the wounds of our hurting world with the balm of healing. Which is why, in this movie, things don’t turn out quite the way they did in 1959 and 1925 (I’m purposefully ignoring a 2010 mini-series that is not worth mentioning). There’s more forgiveness and more love.

Fair enough. Who can argue with that? Unfortunately, there’s also less talent. Say what you will about Heston (along with William Shatner, my favorite over-actor), but he held your attention with true magnetism. Director Wyler knew a thing or two about camera placement, and though his Oscar-winning film is riddled with excessive sentiment, it feels brisk, even at over 210 minutes, because we are wholly invested in Ben-Hur’s journey. Bekmambetov, who once so wowed me with his early promise in films, made back in Russia, like Night Watch and Day Watch, has since those day become mired in the special-effects wizardry of modern-day Hollywood, hopelessly adrift in creative limbo. Lead actors Jack Huston (Kill Your Darlings), as Ben-Hur, and Toby Kebbell (Warcraft), as Messala, are appealing in a boyish way, but no match for Heston and his co-star Stephen Boyd (Fantastic Voyage). This time, the rivals are brothers, and not just friends, a change which actually renders Messala’s betrayal a hundred times worse, straining the credibility of the final forgiveness scene. The entire affair is narrated by Morgan Freeman (Lucy) – because who doesn’t want to have their film accompanied by his wise, mellifluous voice – who is saddled with so much exposition that we sometimes wonder why we even need the subsequent action. Nevertheless, once the film settles down to its storytelling, there are some sequences that entertain. Of particular note is the scene in the Roman galley, when all hell breaks loose in a naval battle; the chariot race is also fine, though less impressive now in our world of CGI without the sense of it all taking place, for real, in front of the camera. I also enjoyed some of the transitions between scenes, such as when we flash forward 5 years from Ben-Hur’s arrival on the ship through the mere flick of a whip. But overall, this is a movie that genuinely begs the question, why bother?

Perhaps the most egregious fault is the choice to show Jesus – remember that this is “A Tale of the Christ” – in all his ordinary humanity. For the record, I am an atheist, and so do not believe that Jesus Christ was the son of God. But if you’re going to make a film about a deity walking the earth, that deity should have star power. In the 1959 film, we never see Jesus except from behind, and when everyone – from Jews to Romans to slaves – react in awe when gazing upon the man, we supply our own vision of what they see. Here, poor Rodrigo Santoro (300: Rise of an Empire) as Jesus, whose face we see from the get-go,  is burdened with too great of a task, and comes across as just a struggling soul who wishes the world were better. That would be fine – and it’s how I envision the historical Jesus, anyway – but when everyone reacts to him as if he commands special power, it makes no sense, because he doesn’t. And from the misconception flows all that doesn’t work in the rest of the film. If, in the course of my review, I have failed to mention any of the actresses, it’s because their parts are as underwritten as they were in 1959, which in 2016 feels unforgivable. Save yourself some money and re-watch the 1959 Ben-Hur at home on your beautiful widescreen TV. Hokum and all, it’ll be more fun.

“Sausage Party” Offers an Orgy of Jokes Crude, Rude, Lewd … and Sometimes Funny, Too!

Sausage Party

Sausage Party (Greg Tiernan/Conrad Vernon, 2016)

If the thought of your food having sex (note: not you having sex with your food) after doing battle with those who would eat it, all the while spouting gourmet profanities galore, then this just might be the movie for you. On the other hand, depending on your tolerance for ethnic and racial jokes, you could find the movie a turnoff (food sex notwithstanding). What is most definite, however, is that Sausage Party is not the family-friendly animated confection you have been waiting for (its R rating is well-earned). Hopefully, you already caught ZootopiaFinding Dory and/or The Secret Life of Pets earlier this year. Whatever you do, don’t take your children to see this, unless they’re adults, and even then, you may just want to sit in separate theaters. Unless you enjoy yukking it up over semen jokes with your offspring (and then I’d rather not know you, thank you very much), in which case, Sausage Party is your fantasy come to cinematic life!

The day dawns bright; the sun shines on the corn; a baritone sings out. No, this is not the opening of Oklahoma!, but rather a supermarket in a big city where produce, non-perishables and health and beauty products all celebrate each morning with a joyous song, hopeful that this will be the day they are chosen for the “great beyond.” As it so happens, it’s July 3, and tomorrow will be “red, white and blue day.” The frankfurters and buns are especially excited, as they know that this is a particularly fine opportunity for them to achieve their destiny. Among them are Frank (voiced by Seth Rogen, The Interview, also one of the writers) and Brenda (voiced by Kristen Wiig, Ghostbusters), a sausage and bread product made for each other, or so they believe, and as they’re declarations of first love, and then explicit raunchy lust, indicate, they have but one thought in mind, which is to join in coital harmony. They are not alone. Who knew that food was so eager to get it on?

Sadly, however, the spell of their idyll is broken by a returned jar of honey mustard, who tells of evil deeds afoot beyond the walls of the supermarket. One thing leads to another, and before long our heroes are jettisoned from their packaging, with but one goal in mind, which is to return things to the way they were. If this sounds like Toy Story, that’s because, apart from the choice of actual subjects and the foul language, it hews pretty close to the plot of most quest movies, animated or not. What makes the film stand apart is not the trajectory of its narrative, but it’s liberal use of scatological and carnal humor, as well as it’s equal-opportunity offenses in the realm of ethnic slurs. From a Woody Allen-esque nebbishy bagel (voiced by Edward Norton (Birdman) to a virgin-seeking Jew-hating Lavash (voiced by David Krumholtz , Gigi Does It) – and if you have to ask what a Lavash is, don’t worry, as the movie makes fun of that, as well – to a hot-blooded taco shell (voiced by Salma Hayek (Savages) to, well, many more (and many more actors than the ones listed here), the script indulges in every possible stereotype it can justify among the food shelves. It’s funny for a while, and not as offensive as it might seem, especially since so many supermarket items are marketed via such stereotypes, but then it just gets old.

And that’s the real problem with the movie. Inconsistent with the big laughs, it all too often elicits nothing more than a chuckle. Sausages proclaiming their desire to sleep with buns, in far more explicit language than that, is amusing, but the constant repetition of that fact is not. There needs to be more. Finally, at the end, there is, and I must admit that the grand finale did catch me unawares and make me laugh, loudly and raucously. But before then there was much squirming, and even a cringe or two when the film actually became quite violent (a not so quasi-rape scene, a beheading, and more). It’s quite the hodgepodge, with some tasty morsels and others quite rotten. Still, the audacity of that ending scene almost made the whole experience worth it. Go for that dessert, at least, and maybe you’ll enjoy the appetizer and main course more than I did.

In “Florence Foster Jenkins,” La Diva Streep Warbles Through a Too-Often Flat Aria

Florence Foster Jenkins

Florence Foster Jenkins (Stephen Frears, 2016)

I miss the Meryl Streep of yore, before she was an institution, accorded diva status and expected to play corresponding roles. I loved her in Tommy Lee Jones’s recent The Homesman, where her few minutes on screen allowed her enough time to show how much she could do with very little. These days, however, she all too often plays larger-than-life parts, from Miranda Priestley in The Devil Wears Prada, to Julia Child in Julia & Julia, to Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady, to the battle-axe of a matriarch in August: Osage County (where, for my money, she was outclassed by the far more restrained Julia Roberts). I am sure that much of this is the result of a dearth of normal roles for women as they age. Who wouldn’t rather play eccentrics than faceless helpmates and housewives? Still, knowing the emotional depths of which Streep is capable – think Kramer vs. Kramer, Sophie’s Choice or Silkwood, to name but three of her many past (comparatively subtle) glories – it seems almost a shame to watch her don yet another set of stylized mannerisms for yet another oddball. Nevertheless, if we compare her to a male contemporary who began in the same 1970s era – Robert De Niro – whose work over the past decade has included far too many forgettable comedies like the recent Dirty Grandpa, Streep remains the far better model of how to remain relevant in the later years of one’s career.

But here she is as wealthy heiress Florence Foster Jenkins, whose inability to hold a tune was matched only by her willingness to belt it for all to hear. Dubbed “the worst singer in the world” by at least one reporter (according to this film), Jenkins was a great patron of the arts, both in her adopted hometown of New York and across the globe, spreading her riches generously through circles large and small. As a result, she had a devoted following that even included the great conductor Arturo Toscanini, though that (purchased) loyalty did not necessarily translate into attendance at one her concerts. After all, art is art, and brooks (almost) no compromise. As played by Streep, she is all nervous and clueless bluster, sweetly bombastic as she prepares for one final concert at Carnegie Hall. It would all seem so improbably if it were not, in fact, based on the truth. Earlier this year saw the release of French director Xavier Giannoli’s Marguerite, which told a highly fictionalized version of the same story. In many ways that was the superior film, both in its central performance (by the great Catherine Frot, Haute Cuisine) and period splendor. Both movies, however, suffer from the same problem: what, beyond their ridiculous belief in their nonexistent talent, makes these women worthy of a feature-length treatment of their lives. They’re rich, spoiled, and, aside from that one peculiarity, not very interesting.  

Fortunately, what Florence Foster Jenkins has going for it is a marvelous performance by Hugh Grant (The Man from U.N.C.L.E.) as Jenkins’s husband-cum-manager-cum-valet, St Clair Bayfield, a failed actor who long-ago decided that life held more pleasures in the company of a loving patron than on an empty stage. Of course, this doesn’t prevent him from spending half his time in the company of his much younger mistress (Rebecca Ferguson, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, in a thankless part), but there is no question that the relationship is mutually beneficial to husband and wife, both. As the film begins, the two are engaged in a joint performance where Bayfield recites monologues and Jenkins poses in tableaux vivants of famous opera scenes, all for the wealthy patrons of the tony Verdi Club. Soon, though, Jenkins decides she wants to sing again, and so Bayfield – played by Grant as an all-purpose fixer – arranges auditions for a new accompanist. They settle on one Cosme McMoon (Simon Helberg, The Big Bang Theory), as much a lost artistic soul as are they, and before long the three are preparing for the big concert. Not, however, before we hear Jenkins sing, and realize what a disaster this will be.

Ah, the singing. It is funny. Streep makes it so. But after 5 minutes of hearing the desperate warble, and watching McMoon struggle not to laugh (a process repeated many times), we grow bored. Is that all there is to the movie? Director Stephen Frears (Philomena) likes his outsiders and oddballs, but her can’t seem to rise above the mere showcase of strangeness. Yes, Jenkins’s life was a celebration of the fact that belief in art can sometimes be as powerful as actual talent, but we get that point early on. The rest of the time, we’re simply watching a deluded millionaire sing out of tune. There was another story that could have been told here (and Marguerite came closer to telling it) – a satire about the distance between wealth and talent – but Frears and company get too lost in the surface ticks of their main character, and the tragic sentimentality of her love life, to see what could have been. It’s all veneer, in other words, and occasionally entertaining, at that, but lacking in a strong story, beneath.

Disney’s Remade “Pete’s Dragon” Offers CGI Delights and Flesh-and-Bone Disappointments

Pete's Dragon

Pete’s Dragon (David Lowery, 2016)

If you are a fan of the original Pete’s Dragon, released in 1977, eager to see what the new version has to offer, know this: where that film trafficked in the kind of adorably silly vibe that was Walt Disney’s stock-in-trade at the time, the 2016 remake is most definitely a product of the second decade of the 21st century (post-Dark Knight), for better or for worse, with tragedy and sentiment interwoven in a sometimes successful, sometimes cloying mix. Elliott the dragon may still be an adorable magical guardian for the orphaned Pete, but the road to the happy conclusion is much more stressful now, and bad things happen to good people. Interestingly, this time around, the bad people suffer nary a scratch, which can frustrate those looking for a story where evil deeds lead to nasty punishment. Instead, though, director David Lowery (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) has redemption on his mind, underlined by the repeated calls to accept the glories of faith, spoken by, of all people, the Sundance Kid (a.k.a., Robert Redford). Nothing wrong with believing in something, but the heavy-handedness of those exhortations is part of what doesn’t work here; what does is the wonderful CGI main character, whose rumbling, if wordless, mournful baritone serves as moral soundtrack to this mixed-bag of an updated fable about loyalty and friendship.

As the film begins, the titular Pete (relative newcomer Oakes Fegley, perfectly acceptable) is not yet an orphan, though five minutes later he will be. As he wanders, bereft, through the woods, the local wolves (the most maligned creatures of the fairy-tale universe) sense an opportunity, but just before they pounce, something far bigger shows up. It’s a dragon, who rescues young Pete in a lovely moment that showcases the expressive power of modern animation, especially when combined with live action (nothing in the original came close). We flash forward 6 years, and now Pete and his caretaker/best friend, Elliott (named after a lost dog in Pete’s favorite book) have the woods (which look like they belong to the Pacific Northwest) to themselves. If the setup bears an unfortunate resemblance to that of two previous films released this year – first The Jungle Book (also from Disney) and then The Legend of Tarzan – that should hardly surprise, since Hollywood is as much addicted to repetition as to recycling. Speaking of the latter, one of the nicer additions that Lowery has made to his version is a strong ecological call to action: preserve and keep the wild in as pristine a state as possible.

Unfortunately, while the joyful romps through the forest are delightful, we need conflict, and this must take the form of other humans, none of whom are drawn with the same depth as Elliott and Pete. Bryce Dallas Howard (Jurassic World) shows up as a forest ranger who has somehow missed seeing Elliott all these years; Robert Redford (All Is Lost, slumming it here), the film’s narrator, plays her father, whose dragon stories have long gone ignored; Oona Laurence (Lamb) is Howard’s daughter, and though she has done fine work in the past, is here relegated to one-dimensional emoting; Karl Urban (Star Trek Beyond), who can snarl like no other, makes a good villain, though perhaps too good, since his comeuppance (or, rather, lack thereof) is such a let-down. The rest of the cast, including Wes Bentley (Interstellar) as Howard’s milquetoast husband, are merely faces in a nondescript crowd. Since the screenplay demands that we invest our emotions in Pete’s necessary place in this world – rather than with Elliott – this is a narrative problem. Yes, ideally, we (mostly) belong with our own species, but this Pete’s Dragon fails to convince that these particular humans are up to the task. As a result, the final resolution, where dragon and boy each go their own way, feels even sadder than the accident that opens the movie. Let Pete have his dragon, dammit!

Criterion’s “Night and Fog” + “Neither Heaven Nor Earth” + Gillian Armstrong x2 at “Hammer to Nail”

Hammer to Nail August 10

In the past two weeks, Hammer to Nail published three reviews of mine – of two movies just released and one brand-new Criterion Collection Blu-ray disc – plus one interview, with director Gillian Armstrong (whose latest documentary, Women He’s Undressed, was one of my reviews). Here are the links to all four pieces:

Enjoy!

In “Don’t Think Twice,” Funny People Try Too Hard to Be Sad

Don't Think Twice

Don’t Think Twice (Mike Birbiglia, 2016)

Comedian Mike Birbiglia has developed a loyal fanbase over the past 10 years or so with his standup routines, Comedy Central specials and frequent appearances on the popular public radio broadcast This American Life. One of his most devoted fans, in fact, is the producer/star of that last show, Ira Glass, who has gone on to produce both of Birbiglia’s features: his debut, Sleepwalk with Me (based on sketches he performed on This American Life and then collected into a book) and now his follow-up, Don’t Think Twice. Though I do not know Birbiglia personally, he seems like an affable fellow, who commands the respect and affection of those with whom he works, and whose comedic writing, when not in service of a feature-film script, is sharp and funny. Unfortunately, neither of his long-form movies have quite lived up to my expectations, though they have both had many moments of fine wit and subtle characterizations that make for very pleasant, if not particularly memorable, viewing. I like them; I do not love them.

Don’t Think Twice tells the story of a small improv group, called “The Commune,” that has served as a feeder, in the past, for a popular sketch-comedy show, called Weekend Live, that is clearly modeled on the real-life Saturday Night Live. As the movie begins, the members form a close-knit group of colleagues and friends who manage to be both mutually supportive and extremely wary that any one of them will make it big. Sure enough, that happens, and when the lucky comic gets the call to move on up to the big leagues, before long their once happy community begins to fall apart. Jealousy and insecurity do not a happy combination make.

The moments in the film that work best are the delightful scenes when the improv group is either on stage or riffing in ostensibly private moments. There, we get a real sense for their dynamic and ability to mine all situations – even the most tragic – for deep comedy. In addition to Birbiglia, we have Gillian Jacobs (Community), Kate Micucci (Steven Universe), Tami Sagher (Women Who Kill), Keegan-Michael Key (Key and Peele) and Chris Gethard (Broad City), all of whom bring wonderful comic timing to their sketches. Unfortunately, even though they are also all more than capable actors, the more mawkish parts of the story do not work as well. What is it with comedians and pathos? The late Robin Williams, in the second half of his career, could never seem to avoid such maudlin miseries as What Dreams May Come or Bicentennial Man, which brimmed with unearned sap. Birbiglia is too good of a writer for his own films to be without merit, but the comedy feels soggy because it is weighed down by a bog of sentiment. The same held true for Sleepwalk with Me, which lacked the energetic drive of its source material.

I suspect that anyone who has spent time in an improv troupe will probably appreciate the portrait of this particular group, which feels grounded in actual experience. I appreciated the characters and the easy rapport of the actors. I just wish that the ratio of humor to drama were reversed, as Birbiglia has a steadier hand when crafting the former. The film is certainly watchable; I just wish it were better. Early on, we learn the three rules of improv comedy: 1) say yes; 2) it’s all about the group; 3) don’t think. Our protagonists break all of these rules, but sadly, so does Birbiglia, the writer, who has spent too much time thinking about the story’s structure to step back and worry about its actual appeal. You’re funny, Mike. Say yes to that. Please.