Don’t Think Twice

I’m so small

dttFinally, someone had the guts to come out and say Saturday Night Live isn’t all that funny [anymore].  But Don’t Think Twice, Mike Birbiglia’s from-the-heart comedy about the final year of an improv troupe’s time together, doesn’t just create a world of facsimiles and call it drama/hope it’s funny – that Bob-Dylan-esque title reminds us that these characters, unique and true in the face of the TV comedy machine, are real people with real lives, and there are no promises that everyone’s making it through this in one piece.  That’s what I’m talking about: a comedy with stakes.  Yes please.

Sam (Gillian Jacobs) and Jack (Keegan-Michael Key) are members of the Commune, a borderline legendary underground improv troupe of the NYC old school. Along with them are Miles (Birbiglia himself), the founder, unfulfilled and sleeping with students fifteen years his junior; Allison (Kate Micucci), a talented cartoonist; Lindsay (Tami Sagher), a comedy scribbler and pothead who comes from wealthy parents; and Bill (Chris Gethard), the group’s hard-luck Eeyore.  During one fateful show, Sam and Jack are fingered by the producers of Weekend Live, the aforementioned SNL clone run by a truly loathsome exec who surrounds himself with arm candy and gets off on threatening to fire people.  This is the life Jack has wanted, though: according to Miles, he becomes a “one-man audition tape” when TV scouts show up.  His audition goes well, and he’s immediately onto “better” things.  Sam’s audition is never shown, though it doesn’t seem to go well, and whatever actually happened becomes something of a Noodle Incident that looms over the characters until its inevitable revelation.

Don’t Think Twice not only looks at improv as an art form unto itself, but does comedy in the style of an old “last days of the Samurai” film: improv isn’t exactly dying, but the cornball, penny-candy humor of Weekend Live and other easy-to-digest TV shows have become the aspiration of comedians and artists who could be making much better work (while making less money, obviously).  Sam realizes this, and although she could spend her days listening to crappy synth-pop with Lena Dunham or getting stock compliments from Ben Stiller, she knows that very real people are counting on her to walk out onto the stage and ask whether they’ve had a particularly hard day.  And furthermore, it’s fulfilling to her – she didn’t come here for “the bigs.”  So while the film is never unsympathetic towards Jack, it rages against the culture of immediacy and the idea of selling out when so many proverbial riches are already in one’s hands.  But everyone has hills to climb, and you have to respect the realism.

Performance-wise, Jacobs/Micucci/Key play the characters we really want to see win, and Jacobs finally gets to exhibit her dexterity at silly voices and physical humor (even though Britta was my favorite Community character, she wasn’t exactly allowed to be the goofball Sam is here).

Because of that sense of realism, it isn’t a film you go into expecting every piece to fall into place and everyone to have a happy ending.  Even in a comedy, every single thing can’t work out.  Maybe Shakespeare would disagree, but nobody asked him.

220px-don27t_think_twice_28film29Don’t Think Twice (2016); written and directed by Mike Birbiglia; starring Gillian Jacobs, Keegan-Michael Key, Kate Micucci, and Mike Birbiglia.

Paradise

Plane crash odds

paradiseI’m still stewing over the movie I really want to write about, but Paradise was worth looking at for a single scene, which I’ll get to.  It’s a story centered around one night in the Hollywood version of Las Vegas (or rather, Paradise, Nevada), involving characters who play out archetypes and contrivance to the point that they sometimes seem to realize that they’re in a movie.  If nothing else, it has this wonderful line: “You’re a magical prostitute!”

Diablo Cody’s directorial debut follows Lamb (Julianne Hough), a sheltered churchgoer who has an epiphany after her body is scorched in a plane crash that kills her fiance’.  First bit of contrivance: the jet fuel managed to disfigure every part of her body except her face and hair, so we’re still left with a leading lady that any appearance-obsessed movie studio would approve of.  The kicker about the accident is that the church expects Lamb to donate her settlement money to them, and on the day she is to give a moving speech about how the accident strengthened her faith, she instead goes on a tirade that upsets every stock character within earshot (“Devil’s lies!”  “You’ve lost your way!”), including Lamb’s parents (Holly Hunter and Nick Offerman).  Lamb decides that the best way to come out of the shell she’s been in for 21 years is to spend a few days in Las Vegas, experiencing all of the “sins” she’s been warned about.

In Vegas, Lamb meets the seemingly-sweet-but-obviously-opportunistic William (Russell Brand) and talented “bar-tainer” Loray (Octavia Spencer), who agree to take care of her for the night.  None of the Superbad-style antics you’d expect to occur actually do, which would be a good thing if the film concentrated on Lamb’s growth as a person.  Really, though, the chief concern seems to be whether Lamb will abandon this idea and apologize to her parents, or have some anti-epiphany and find her way back to religion.  William and Loray give Lamb her first drink, take her dancing, show her adult magazines, help her renew a prescription for medicine that keeps her skin grafts in check, and other things that you’d probably go to the movies to avoid doing/thinking about.  But neither character happens to be around when bad things almost happen to Lamb: she gets drunk and stumbles into the laps of some ill-intentioned sleazeballs (“Hey cutie!  Come sit with us!”), tears one of her skin grafts, and ends up vomiting into a garbage can on the floor of a very scary bathroom.

Diablo Cody’s sharp writing made Juno what it was, but Paradise is not as concise and character-driven.  We still receive the inner-monologue voiceover of the main female character, which works well in both films and is actually a pretty charming way to get to know Lamb, but this film’s jokes don’t land quite as well as Ellen Page’s.  There’s a certain “out of practice” feel to the whole thing.  Juno also ended with the convenient tying of narrative bows, but the care that went into that film excused the contrivance.  Here, the things you expect to happen – but wish wouldn’t – happen.  William’s lines are sometimes funny, but later you realize that it’s only because Russell Brand is saying them (see Island Syndrome).  Loray fears that she’s playing the “magical negro” trope in this story, which leads to a funny exchange with Lamb and William, but really only drives in the fact that she’s the only non-white character with anything to do, and what she’s doing is playing a stock character.  Holly Hunter is hilarious and plays with her dialogue well, even inserting some maybe-improvised physical comedy that lands every time, and Nick Offerman’s father character delivers one line that captures the essence of every conservative parent you’ll ever meet: “We’re open to hearing about your new beliefs, as long as they are still very conservative.”

But there’s one scene that works better than anything with any of the famous actors in the film, and also functions as more than just the best scene in this movie.  Early on, Lamb is given a card with a photo of a girl on it by a random street hustler, unaware of what happens when you call the girl’s number.  Later, while Lamb vomits in a public bathroom, the girl on the card, Amber (Kathleen Rose Perkins), who has aged ten years, wanders in and expresses annoyance at the fact that someone looks like she’s about to OD in front of her (again!).  Lamb, people-oriented and still not quite believing in coincidence whether or not she believes in religion anymore, immediately recognizes Amber and attempts, despite the fact that she’s crying and addled by both medicine and alcohol, to get Amber to stay and talk to her, as this must be a fated meeting.  The scene features the best acting and writing in the film, a truly touching conversation (and hug), and the story’s best tension, as Lamb does everything to get Amber to stay in the bathroom (and to take her seriously).  The scene portrays Amber as just a person doing a job, despite her profession, and it doesn’t seem to encompass everything about her identity, which is a trap many movies fall into, depicting prostitutes as either self-despising victims, complacent machines, or glamorized porn stars.

This film actually did not need the star power.  That one scene alone could be an entire short film, and a good one.  In fact, were they developed more naturally, any of the other characters would be worth spending time alone with.  But the intention is there, and I can’t begrudge anyone who tries to make something great on their own.

Paradise (2013); written and directed by Diablo Cody; starring Julianne Hough, Russell Brand, Octavia Spencer, and Kathleen Rose Perkins.

Much Ado About Nothing

Our watch, sir, have indeed comprehended two auspicious persons

Amy AckerShakespeare is one of the only writers whose work can be acceptably “interpreted” to fit new adaptations.  One of the more popular ideas about Much Ado About Nothing – among the most effective of Shakespeare’s comedies – is that Beatrice and Benedick are rediscovering an old love as opposed to finding it for the first time.  Joss Whedon plays with this in his new adaptation, which he shot at his own home in Santa Monica in record time.  Much of the great nuance stems from Whedon’s film technique, including his use of black-and-white, which may remind one of the great comedies of old (Shakespeare’s play is unarguably one of the earliest examples of screwball comedy), namely the 1930s.  Finally, a Shakespeare film adaptation by a director that not only understands the text, but also understands the conventions of the film genre in which he works and how employing those conventions might bolster the effectiveness of the movie.

The story follows the original, down to the exact word aside from some interesting shifts – the various songs from the play, sung by characters, are here absorbed into the film’s soundtrack – and Whedon’s inspired choice to switch Conrade’s (Riki Londhome) gender, rendering her the lover of the mostly-offscreen scoundrel Don John (Sean Maher).  This enables some wonderful opportunities in blocking, and also some invention on the part of the filmmakers, which is always important in an adaptation, and usually leads to vicious abuse of the source material.  Not here.

Beatrice and Benedick, the leads, are played warmly and familiarly by Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof, who just might be the new sweethearts of the screen (think Peppy and George, but not quite so forced).  Acker’s Beatrice is steadfast, opinionated, and witty beyond belief.  Denisof’s Benedick is relentlessly hammy, and never misses the mark with his nearly endless quips.  I’d have watched a movie comprised of nothing but these two, but we get much more, namely in Riki Lindhome as the infamously straightforward Conrade, whose facial expressions in the film are as good as any of her lines, and Nathan Fillion as Constable Dogberry, written by Shakespeare to be the dumbest, most inept character of all time, who inadvertently (along with his underlings) saves the day by revealing Don John’s dastardly plot to frame naive and frustratingly-silent Hero (Jillian Morgese) for an adultery she never committed.  Fillion delivers Shakespeare’s arduously-crafted malapropisms more naturally than anyone I’ve seen in the role (don’t take that the wrong way, Nathan).  Fran Kranz appears as Claudio, the play’s Boring Hero, and delivers most of the film’s straight-played dramatic dialogue more than convincingly.  The role of Don Pedro, Prince of Aragon – who functions mostly as Claudio’s drunk friend whose lot in life is to provide bad advice with high-school-level maturity – is taken up by Reed Diamond, who keeps an appropriate presence and doesn’t upstage the less overt Claudio when he isn’t supposed to.  Clark Gregg of The Avengers plays Leonato, governor of Messina, who decides on all of the ridiculous stipulations in the story.

The resulting movie is the best onscreen comedy in years, in a world wherein screwball comedy has lately been defined by lowbrow sex jokes, hit-or-miss improv, and increasingly preposterous situations.  Here is something low key, accessible, cultured, and smart.  Here is something heartfelt, truly funny, and furthermore, relevant – Shakespeare’s poking fun at the incompetent police forces of his day (which at the time were made up of respectable citizens who took up the job for a few nights a year despite being all but completely unqualified to do so) doesn’t quite pinpoint the more serious missteps of our current enforcement, but Dogberry’s ineptitude (not least of which is his famously redundant list of Conrade and Borachio’s felonies) and eventual day-saving suggest that social order and emotional normalcy can and will be restored by sheer providence/circumstance.  It also showcases women in a medium (Renaissance comedy) wherein many folks may not have thought prominent female characters would exist (or at least not as wives and damsels, as they do in much of Shakespeare’s work).  Moreover, all the wit and wordplay still dazzle, right down to the title: “nothing” and “noting” were homonyms when the play was written, and here we have a story in which every character’s emotional stability is upturned due to something that did not actually happen (i.e. “nothing”), and every major turning point in the story is triggered by characters spying and eavesdropping on one another (i.e. “noting”).

May Whedon continue along this road.  This is real superhero work.

Much Ado About Nothing (2013); written and directed by Joss Whedon; adapted from the play by William Shakespeare; starring Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof, Nathan Fillion, and Riki Lindhome.

Dinner For Schmucks

Be nice to your goats

It becomes evident within the first twenty minutes of Dinner For Schmucks that that “schmucks” in question are the very people attending the dinner.  At the onset, the movie reminded me of a film I wrote and worked on – Slices – which featured characters meeting when the protagonist (straight man) hits the secondary main character (funny man) with a car, following which he gives him a ride, and the adventure begins.  I was flabbergasted until I remembered that when I was writing Slices in 2007, I was creating a project in the vein of conventional double-act comedy.  After that, I was able to enjoy myself.

The film features Steve Carell as the funny man and Paul Rudd as the straight man.  Rudd’s character, Tim Conrad, is offered a high-paying position at the company he works at (by the time the film is halfway done, you won’t remember what the company is or what they do or what they’re called; you’ll just remember that they’re a classic group of misogynistic suit-wearing pricks with a ton of money).  As part of the company’s tradition, Tim is required to attend a company dinner and bring along an “idiot” to make fun of.  Why this would be funny or plausible in real life without the “idiots” realizing what was going on is beyond me, but it makes for an interesting comedic premise, to be sure.

Of course, Tim decides to bring Barry Speck (Carell), a taxidermist who collects dead mice and creates colorful dioramas with the corpses.  After a fight with his girlfriend Julie (Stephanie Sztostak), Tim is left with Barry, who mistakes which night the dinner is.  Together they adventure through L.A. in hopes of bringing Julie back, running into a nice cast of bizarre characters including Tim’s insane ex, Darla (Lucy Punch); Barry’s mind-controlling IRS boss, Therman (Zack Galifianakis), and eccentric artist Kieran Vollard (Jemaine Clement), with whom Julie is thought to be cheating on Tim.  Clement brings yet another quirky and well-acted performance to a comedy film, all but stealing the show again in this one.  As Vollard tells us, “There are only two things in this world: wonderful, visceral, sexy sex; and death.  Horrible, boring death.”

The film also features Bruce Greenwood, Ron Livingston and David Walliams in small roles, as well as Larry Wilmore, The Daily Show With John Stewart‘s “senior black correspondent,” and Kristen Shaal (also of Flight of the Conchords and The Daily Show).   It seems as though Stewart’s show is now a gateway into comedy films and larger comedy careers in general, as exemplified by Carell, Stephen Colbert, Ed Helms, Mo Rocca, Rob Riggle and Rob Corddry.

The performances and direction fit the bill.  It’s a well-cast film with an ear for comedy, though it doesn’t have as many laugh-out-loud moments as the recent Date Night or Get Him to the Greek.  The film perhaps makes up for it with some truly touching moments, including a scene where we find out exactly what some of Barry’s weirdest dioramas are really referring to.  The dinner itself, the film’s centerpiece, has a lot to live up to, and while it’s not chock-full of gut-busting one-liners, it’s got enough color and bon-mot-flinging to satisfy.  It even features appearances by Patrick Fischler of ABC’s Lost and Jeff Dunham, who does his annoying ventriloquism thing.

Despite not containing one occasion of the word “schmucks,” the film is a charmer with some real heart, not to mention Steve Carell on his comedy A-game.  Go see it, for schmuck’s sake.

Dinner For Schmucks (2010); written by David Guion; directed by Jay Roach; starring Steve Carell, Paul Rudd, and Jemaine Clement.