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.

Burt Wonderstone

Escape what?

wonderstoneThe Incredible Burt Wonderstone begins at the very top of Vonnegut’s Fortune Graph, then quickly dips to the near-bottom and pulls some clever loops.  Thankfully, there’s some nuance.  Burt Wonderstone (Steve Carell) is at the top of the Las Vegas magician circuit along with his partner, Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi).  The duo perform a ten-year-old act in a theatre named after themselves, and their act is the exclusive property of tight-fisted hotelier Doug Munny (James Gandolfini), who tolerates their show’s repetitive nature as long as they rake in the bucks.  Mixed in with their stage crew is the mature and intelligent Jane (Olivia Wilde), an aspiring magician who looks up to Wonderstone until she realizes what a self-involved, sexist fop he really is.  Out of seemingly nowhere, magician Steve Gray (Jim Carrey), from the David Blaine/Criss Angel school of street-combing, heavy metal non-magic, appears on the scene and makes everyone wonder whether his act, which involves little more than self-mutilation, is the future of magic.

At this point, does anyone really care about the future of magic?  By “everyone,” I mean the real-life audience of this film, because the characters within are certainly concerned enough.  The great illusionists were the most wonderful novelties of their time, and even magicians like Blaine were enjoyable if you couldn’t figure out his year-one card tricks and could get past the fact that his enthusiastic onlookers were plants, but now, in the Age of Irony, the magic of magic would probably be lost on the Youtube generation, who are all too eager to type “FAKE!” in the comments section before a video even ends.

Burt Wonderstone is a formula screwball-comedy; any strange craft or activity could have been implemented in the place of Vegas magic shows for funny results.  The film does some interesting genre-hopping, however; much of the humor, particularly anything involving Jim Carrey, is dark and visceral (I actually looked away during one of Gray’s street tricks), but then, not five minutes later, we receive family-oriented dialogue about friendship.

With Gray becoming more popular, Wonderstone and Anton decide (with more than a little strong-arming from Doug) to change their act.  This leads to an amusing parody of one of David Blaine’s “stand still in public for a week” spectacles, and for these two, the results are calamitous.  With a friendship and a career in shambles, Wonderstone is reduced to rags (near-bottom of the graph!) and must, as we know he will, bounce back and reignite his career while learning a lesson or two about giving.  The problem at the outset is that he’s a horrible person.  His heightened “accent” makes Everett McGill sound like Morgan Freeman.  He’s also unbelievably bigoted, and tells Jane (who refuses to be either his sexed-up assistant or a one-night stand) that she can never be a famous magician because she’s “a girl.”  He also constantly refers to her as “Nicole,” the name of his previous assistant.  His very sincere apology concerning this behavior later in the film makes one wonder whether he’s just been playing a character his entire life.  He admits that he knew her name the entire time and deliberately objectified and insulted her.  Given the joyless and mechanical way he performs in the beginning (including sex with a groupie played by the multi-talented Gillian Jacobs), could he have been acting this way simply because it’s expected of him?  Worth thinking about.  Regardless, he becomes a much more sympathetic protagonist once he admits he was wrong, stops wearing a platinum blonde wig, and begins speaking like a normal person.  The “romance” between Burt and Jane, though, feels completely dialed-in, and I daresay it was not in the script until a big-name studio got involved.

The sexism chat leads to one of the funniest exchanges in the film.  Burt: “I’m sorry.  Back then, women did not have the same freedoms they have now.”  Jane: “It was a month ago.”

Alan Arkin appears as Rance Holloway, the magician whose home kits inspired Burt to do magic in the first place.  There’s some good era-specific humor when, in the 80s segment, Rance’s commercial states, “I’m Rance Holloway.  You’ve probably seen me on the Merv Griffin show.”  Whomever did Arkin’s makeup for this film should win an Oscar next year. Gandolfini plays the voracious Doug as a straightforward parody of Vegas hoteliers: he opens a billion-dollar resort named after himself (“The Doug”), cannot remember how old his son is, and has even fewer layers to his character than Virgil from True Romance.  Buscemi is hilarious and heartwarming as usual in these comedic roles that he loves, and after watching him for three years on Boardwalk Empire, this role is borderline novel.  Wilde plays Jane as a down-to-earth career woman whose character could have potentially been far more than a love interest (though she does achieve her dream of becoming The Astonishing Jane in the end).  Carrey’s Steve Gray is something else.  Even in middle-age, he’s successfully brought back the material he did in The Mask; a kooky niche character who, despite being crazy, manages to be more than a caricature.  Not much more, but Jim Carrey has effectively returned.  Gray is the quintessential celebrity magician who doesn’t care how his dangerous acts affect children.  Jane asks, after Gray mutilates himself at a birthday party, “What if kids try to copy you?”  Gray answers, “I’ll sue them.  It’s my trick.”  Finally, there’s a great cameo from David Copperfield, the guy who made me love magic shows when I was a kid.  I won’t spoil his involvement in the movie, but I still cannot figure out how he did that “interact with your TV” trick wherein you always end up on the moon.

In this case, if you’re entirely sure about what you saw, you overthought it.

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone; written by John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein; directed by Don Scardino; starring Steve Carell, Steve Buscemi, Olivia Wilde, and Jim Carrey.