August 22, 2016

'Don't Think Twice' shows us that success is a complicated beast.

In her commencement speech at Harvard University, actress and comedian Amy Poehler said, “If I wanted to give you advice as an actor, I would tell you this: Don’t do it. Don’t be one. There are too many. I have a lot of talented friends who aren’t working… I bet you’re great, but just work with the human genome instead.” Initially, Poehler’s words might appear arrogant, like a king telling you that it’s much easier to be a peasant, and since it’s so hard (nay, impossible) to become a king anyway, why bother trying? But when you watch Don’t Think Twice, which is a movie about people trying to make it in acting—specifically in comedy—Poehler’s words ring especially true. The competition is seemingly impossible, and the number of talented people who can’t find work is truly staggering. Don’t Think Twice feels like the hard, honest truth that we’ve been denying for so long about following our dreams, exchanging it for mantras such as, “you can be anything you want; you’re special; there’s no one like you.”

Don’t Think Twice shows the more realistic side of the entertainment industry: people in their mid-30s following their dreams without much else to help them survive: they deliver pizza or or demo new brands of hummus at the supermarket; they share a two-bedroom flat with five roommates; but they also carve out time for the work that they love. (In her terrific book Yes Please, Amy Poehler herself recounts similar experiences of when she first moved to New York.) You can devote everything within you—your time, your energy, your sweat, your money—and sacrifice everything else, and still not make it.

The director and star of Don’t Think Twice, Mike Birbiglia, plays Miles, leader of “The Commune,” a New York City improv group comprised of six people, each of them quirky and funny and genuinely talented. There’s Jack, the hunky, most polished member of the group (played by Keegan-Michael Keel); Sam (played by the effervescent Gillian Jacobs), a woman who’s fixated on the group, and who is paralyzed by her fear of success; Allison (Kate Micucci), who likes to draw and who can do an excellent imitation of an Italian maitre d; Lindsay, who’s slightly older than almost everyone else, and whose wealthy parents help fund her dreams (and she resents it); and Bill (Chris Gethard), who’s mopey and sad, but funny in that Ben Stiller low-self-esteem way. (Ben Stiller, incidentally, makes a cameo appearance as himself.)

Miles, who’s constantly taking credit for helping the others develop their craft (and guarding against his own insecurities) has studied with some of the founders of improv like Del Close, back in Chicago, and now he’s teaching other young actors, all the while continuing to nurse his own ambitions. But Miles’s dream of making it on Weekend Live (the film’s fictional version of SNL), has turned old and wrinkly, like the jilted spinster Miss Havisham in the novel Great Expectations, all of her clocks broken, permanently suspended in time to mark the day her lover left her. Miles has been betrayed by his dreams too.

Maybe Don’t Think Twice hits too close to home. My generation seems to be lost, not like the 20- and 30-somethings who survived World War I, but a new group of lost people, dazzled and finally dulled-out by a world of too many choices. It’s hard to be sympathetic to our plight, though, because saying “I’ve just had too many options to be successful” is a sign that you might be a genuine asshole.

And while the movie is funny (there are many scenes of the actors performing sketches, or turning real-life situations into moments for improvisational lunacy), it’s also genuinely heartbreaking. It’s heartbreaking to see people’s dreams fail them. (Or maybe they have failed their dreams, which is even worse.) It’s heartbreaking to see people compromise, to see success and fame tear the group apart when Jack finally breaks through. But the movie doesn’t offer these characters up for pity’s sake. They aren’t victims and they aren’t pathetic. They’re simply people who’ve tried to achieve their goals in life, and who haven’t completely succeeded. Some of them do find success, of course; others discover new avenues to explore in the wake of failure.

And if Don’t Think Twice is somewhat cynical about the entertainment industry (which, how could it not be?), this movie also challenges our ideas about success, and asks some valuable questions: What if it’s not about being rich and famous? What if it’s about the work and the community we form around creating and doing the work? When Jack makes it onto Weekend Live (apologies for that mild spoiler), something like a wall inside the group cracks, for good. Sam, who also managed to score an interview with Weekend Live, can’t even bring herself to attend the interview because, deep down, she knows it means tearing the group apart. What matters more for Sam is what the group is able to create, together, not what she can accomplish on her own. After all, the goal of improvisational comedy is that the group, working in unison, can create something new and spontaneous. Improv, like jazz, is most alive in the moment. It’s visceral, not cerebral.

Rita Rudner once said, “your dream could actually be your nightmare.” Rudner wanted to be a dancer, but then she looked around and noticed how many ballerinas were still working after they reached the age of 30. That would be basically zero. Then she thought about George Burns, a comedian who was working well into his 90s. She’s 63 and still working as a comedian. Rudner’s point speaks the same kind of truth that Don’t Think Twice encourages us to dwell on: We have to be willing to adapt our dreams to reality, and we cannot fixate on past failures for too long.

We are so quick to want to monetize our talent; we are so needy of praise and attention when it comes to our abilities; and not just a little bit of it: We want every ounce. It’s like Eve Harrington, the scheming young actress who tries to steal Bette Davis’s career in All About Eve. The applause is what draws us in, what seduces us. And it’s not that some people deserve to be famous and some don’t. It’s that, first, fame isn’t the only measure of success; and second, fame is like everything else in life: it’s capable of corrupting us until we no longer resemble ourselves. But it’s also more complicated. We see Jack trying to help his Commune gang out, even though he’s told never to try and plug friends’ work; we also see him becoming cocky from the fame, and suddenly, it’s completely understandable (though no less wrong). Don’t Think Twice shows us just how complex and maddening and crazy and beautiful this industry can be, all at once, and it feels lived-in and honest, dark and funny and hopeful, all in one dose.

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