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.