REVIEW: Don’t Think Twice

19 08 2016

Don't Think Twice“Comedy shouldn’t be a competition,” says someone from the New York improv group known as The Commune while watching “Weekend Live” (an obvious stand-in for “Saturday Night Live”) in “Don’t Think Twice.” Listen to a long-form interview with a real-life comedian – or better yet, read Kliph Nesteroff’s superlative history of the craft, “The Comedians” – and you’ll know that Lorne Michaels’ comedy institution is truly the end-all, be-all for anyone in the field. There is no getting around the fact that the show represents a kind of Holy Grail for comedians.

The reality stemming from the position of one show as a kind of de facto finish line for comedians does, in fact, make comedy a competition. It’s an objective result created by subjective criteria. There become winners and losers based on seemingly arbitrary, unknowable preferences. Acknowledging this provides cold comfort for aspiring performers and writers who can make tremendous sacrifices to pursue their dreams for years only to get upstreamed by someone fresher, newer … or maybe just more talented.

This existential dilemma forms the bedrock of Mike Birbiglia’s film as Commune member Jack (Keegan-Michael Key) gets the big call up from “Weekend Live.” The timing could not be worse, either, as the group faces an imminent crisis of continuation with the loss of their performing venue. If Jack is the chosen one from their troupe, then what becomes of everyone else who he cannot pull up?

Everyone deals with the reckoning in their own way – continue in comedy? Find a new group? Trudge ahead on the same path? Give up? Everything is on the table, and with their inflection point imminent, it brings out an urgency and honesty in every person. Birbiglia gives each character a story, a purpose and a chance to speak their mind without judgement – a remarkable feat given the Commune’s six comedians. The anxieties are highly specific to their field of choice, yet because of that, their internal tussles feel entirely relevant to anyone in an industry without a clear-cut trajectory of professional advancement.

There may well be someone in the film (mine was Gillian Jacobs’ Samantha, a spot-on representation of what it’s like to fear the next step in your career) who speaks to you directly. But you wouldn’t pluck him or her out of “Don’t Think Twice” and silence the other five members, right? There’s something special about hearing all the voices in an improvisational chorus, not a forced isolation. B+ / 3stars

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REVIEW: Digging for Fire

1 09 2015

Digging for FireAs writer/director Joe Swanberg wanders the corridors of marital discontent in his latest film, “Digging for Fire,” I could not help but wonder if this is what Stanley Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut” would look like when refracted through the lens of low-budget indie cinema.  Over the course of a weekend spent apart, previously unknown rifts and fault lines appear between Tim (Jake Johnson, also a co-writer on the film) and Lee (Rosemarie DeWitt) while they amble and converse freely.

Each’s journey appears cross-cut with the other’s, and the spouses might as well be occupying entirely different films.  Tim hangs out to drink beers and smoke pot with his buddies – one of whom arrives with a young woman on each arm – but proves unable to put his mind at ease about some suspicious bones he spotted in the yard.  Lee, meanwhile, drifts between scenes and choose mostly to let the words of others trigger her thought process.  He is aggressively verbose in expressing his own frustrations; she reacts to hearing those from others.

At moments, “Digging for Fire” shows real insight into the listlessness of marriage and parenting.  Johnson feels especially at home since he gets to speak (presumptively) dialogue he helped write.  When Tim expresses his frustrations and anxieties, they clearly come from someplace personal and resonate accordingly.  For all those looking to use art to deal with their own life, try to model this to avoid self-indulgence.

Swanberg, though, sometimes gets carried away by his posse of ever-ready actor pals.  Since his movies shoot so quickly and efficiently, it makes sense that these stars want a chance to flex their muscles in between the paycheck gigs.  In this case, the ensemble of comedians and dramatists alike can detract attention from what might have played more effectively as a tighter two-hander.  Between the screen time allotted to Orlando Bloom, Brie Larson, Sam Rockwell, Mike Birbiglia, and Anna Kendrick, “Digging for Fire” can sometimes feel like a party at the Swanbergs for which he provided a loose plot and great camerawork.  B2halfstars





REVIEW: Trainwreck

4 08 2015

Trainwreck PosterAt roughly the midpoint of “Trainwreck,” writer Amy Schumer sets up a remarkable parallel between two scenes at the same baby shower.  The character Amy, played by Schumer herself, has to endure a brutal game of “Skeletons in the Closet” where posh young mothers spill dark secrets … that actually reveal themselves as pathetically and predictably tame.

Meanwhile, Amy’s boyfriend, Bill Hader’s Aaron Conners, recounts details of the many athletes he has helped rehabilitate in his sports medicine practice.  He rattles of name after name to the same awe-struck reaction from a crowd of unfamiliar men … until he drops the name Alex Rodriguez.  Among this set of New Yorkers, this blasphemy inspires a sudden outburst of profanity.  But then, Aaron goes back to some more agreeable athletes, and the peanut gallery resumes the standard call-and-response.

These scenes, juxtaposed as they are, communicate a central tenet of “Trainwreck.”  Both genders, when taking cultural stereotypes of gender to the extreme ends of their performance, deserve mockery for their folly.  (This also includes John Cena, who briefly appears as Amy’s bodybuilding boyfriend who talks about the gym like many women talk about the nail salon.)  Schumer’s feminist intervention into the romantic comedy genre aims to level the playing field for men and women, not by putting the latter on any kind of pedestal but through suggesting the common humanity that unites them.

Her on-screen persona in “Trainwreck” arrives at the perfect moment, a time where many female characters are either monotonically strong or practically invisible and silent.  The “approachable” Amy, as her boss (played by a bronzed Tilda Swinton) condescendingly deems her, is a romantic comedy heroine cut from the cloth of contemporary society.  The hard-drinking, truth-telling, free-wheeling character benefits from the assertiveness in romance that women gained through the sexual revolution, yet she also pushes up against the lingering constraints left unconquered by that unfinished movement.  Amy also embodies the spirit of a generation scared to death of commitment, an era when the only thing scarier than the sea of possibilities is the choice to settle on one of them.

She meets her match in Aaron, an equally plain-spoken person who falls for Amy as she profiles him for the men’s magazine S’nuff.  The big difference, though, is that he possesses self-confidence where she shields her insecurities with self-deprecation.  Aaron, notably, never becomes a human incarnation of a “Mr. Wonderful” doll.  While exceedingly nice and admirable, Amy exposes a few of the buttons he might not like people pushing.

“Trainwreck” does not place Amy in the position of damsel in distress, nor does it make her some kind of prize for winning once tamed.  Amy’s impetus to change, although partially spurred by Aaron, seems to derive from an internal desire to stop numbing herself to the world.  And even in her triumphs (including the grand finale), Schumer always makes sure her Amy still shows some amusing, endearing flaws.  She is allowed to have flawed, circular logic, and it does not mean she is crazy; it just means we embrace her all the more.

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