Thursday, May 11, 2017

Don't Think Twice

The newest addition to my Hidden Gems columns over at

Writer/director Mike Birbiglia’s 2016 film Don’t Think Twice is the exact kind of movie the Hidden Gems column was made for. It’s a small, low-key, almost bittersweet look at the life of a group of performers in the improv comedy scene in New York City. The movie has a lot of comedy in it, both in the kind that’s funny and in the kind that we observe the group performing. Overall it’s also kind of a drama, but not really. It’s one of those great types of movies that reflects life in the most human and beautiful way. There’s friendship and love and jealousy and supportiveness and misfits-making-a-family and all other kinds of wonderful themes and behaviors.

We first see the improv group The Commune backstage getting ready for a show in the small theater they rent. Miles (Birbiglia) seems like a kind of leader of the group, though it’s Sam (Gillian Jacobs) that MC’s and takes suggestions from the audience. Sam’s boyfriend Jack (Keegan-Michael Key) is the charismatic “star quality” type performer of the crew, while Allison (Kate Micucci), Lindsay (Tami Sagher), and Bill (Chris Gethard) fill out the rest of the scenes with able supporting work. But, of course, in the world of improv, there are no stars, because it’s not about the individual, it’s about the team and the overall performance and success of the show. That is until word comes one night that a producer from Weekend Live (the SNL stand-in for the movie) will be in the audience, scouting for talent.
We see what happens to the group as it begins to splinter when Jack gets the gig on Weekend Live. He is raised to a whole new bar of performance, one which the Commune gathers around the TV to hate-watch every week, simultaneously proud of Jack, jealous of his success, and disgusted at the lowest common denominator comedy. Jack, meanwhile, now has to navigate the cutthroat world of “me first” comedy that’s totally antithetical to the community that got him there. Miles becomes bitter, because he was Jack’s teacher. He should have that success, he taught Jack everything he knows (obviously ignoring the work Jack put into his craft, along with his natural charisma, and is a stance that hurts Jack's feelings, though he doesn't say it). Sam starts to see her relationship with Jack (lovingly handled in touching moments of subtlety by Birbiglia as a director) slowly crumbling away as Jack’s work schedule and their conflicting ideas and ambitions clash. Jack isn’t trying to leave behind his cohorts, in fact he’s willing to stick his neck out to try and at least get the others in the group onto the show as writers, despite repeatedly being told not to do that by those behind the scenes of the new show. Still, resentments and tensions rise, and relationships are put to the test, sometimes even during the performance of the show.

Just the story of Jack, Sam, and Miles is enough to make a good movie about, but Birbiglia as a writer also doesn’t skimp on characterizations of the other three in the group. Bill, Allison, and Lindsay are all given wonderfully written subplots so that we know who they are (and all three actors give really terrific and heartfelt performances too). They aren’t there just to fill out the scenery, these are all real people we come to know over the 92 minute runtime. And this is really solid writing, not just the “give each person one defining characteristic so that the audience can easily keep up” type mainstream comedy writing we’re so used to. It’s a wonderful ensemble of characters, each brought to amazing life by the cast.
Though I must admit, even as improv is a group activity, the stars of the movie are Gillian Jacobs and Keegan-Michael Key as Sam and Jack. Jacobs’ huge eyes and delicate delivery lets us into Sam’s journey of owning her own power and talent and where she fits in the world. She is luminous in the role and I hope gets some real acting work from it as well, I’d love to see more of her. Key, as Jack, is truly extraordinary in his ability to show the rumbling, boiling, overflowing thoughts and ideas and emotions going on inside Jack that he may or may not share with Sam or the rest of the group. There are scenes that brought tears to my eyes in the humanity that Key brings to the role. Having only known Key from his work on Key and Peele and MadTV, I did not expect the depth of characterization he brings to Jack. Jack is complex and fascinating and that he gets to bounce off of the same qualities coming from Jacobs’ Sam is all the more intriguing and delightful to watch.

Mike Birbiglia is a stand-up comic by trade, that’s how I first came to know him with his specials like What I Should’ve Said Was Nothing, My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend, and multiple Comedy Central Presents showcases. He was always funny, but also often sprinkled in some poignancy and heart into the stories he was telling. And that’s what he slowly became, less stand-up comic and more long form storyteller. So, naturally he’s a great fit for the movies because he’s not just a joke man (though he does have great jokes). He made his first foray into filmmaking with 2012’s Sleepwalk with Me, based on his off-Broadway one man show of the same name. And while Sleepwalk with Me is really good, and you should check it out as well, it doesn’t have quite the impact that Don’t Think Twice has. Both are available to stream on Netflix, as are three of Birbiglia’s stand up specials.

Rarely do we get a movie with characters this well drawn, this balanced in the ensemble, to where we come out really caring about some of these people. Cameo appearances by actors like Lena Dunham and Ben Stiller (as hosts of Weekend Live) are nice, and not overplayed or overused by Birbiglia, since he knows his characters are the show here. They are the reason this movie works. The writing and the brilliant and unshowy work from each and every one of the performers, that’s what makes this movie such a gem.

Friday, January 27, 2017


What is real? Who are you? What do you need to become whomever it is you wish to be? Never have these heady questions been so thoroughly explored in a movie as they are in the 2011 documentary Kumare. New York born and New Jersey bred director Vikram Gandhi set out to look at spiritual leaders, professing a lifelong skepticism of anyone who claims to be more holy or more enlightened than anyone else. He was raised strictly Hindu, studied religion in college, but it never clicked with him. Among other things, there was always the resistance to leaders. Gandhi ultimately decided to take on this subject by becoming a guru himself. So he grew out his hair and beard, put on flowing robes, began carrying a walking staff with the Om symbol on it, and affected an Indian accent inspired by his grandmother. All with the idea of “let’s see what happens”. Will people follow this nonsense just because it comes from an exotic looking man with an accent? The social experiment could’ve gone terribly wrong, and the movie as well. But as Vikram says, it ended up being about “the biggest lie I ever told, and the greatest truth I ever discovered.”

He set up shop in the Tuscon and Phoenix, AZ areas, gained followers in yoga communities by spouting philosophy of real and gibberish words and yoga moves. He had practiced yoga for years himself, so his moves looked authentic. He led a “blue light meditation” meant to connect everyone through their blue light. But it was nonsense. He would preach to his followers that they, not he, had the answers. He repeatedly told them he was not who he seemed to be. "I am the biggest faker I know,” he says to them at one point. But people just dismiss that as guru Kumare's deep humility and allow their spiritual hunger to guide them back over and over again to Kumare and his teachings.

This may sound like the seeds of a prank movie, something Sacha Baron Cohen might dream up to put next to his Borat and Bruno characters. But Kumare is much deeper and more ambitious (and good hearted) than that. Kumare was started as a trick, but his teachings became a sort of "you already have all the answers" or "salvation lies within" kind of teaching that many self-help teachers and even religions preach. “You are the guru” he repeatedly tells them. Are we not all our own gurus?

So the movie then starts to consider the question of: if you achieve some amount of enlightenment from working with a fake teacher, is that enlightenment fake? The teacher didn't achieve it; the enlightenment was your own. Should you feel duped because you reached a place of higher truth for yourself in a different way than you thought you did?

That may make this movie sound like some highly intellectual exploration of these ideas, a dry and possibly unengaging scholarly exercise, but that's not the movie that Vikram Gandhi made, nor even the character that Kumare is. Kumare is very funny, and the movie is as well. I never felt it looking down on these people who come to Kumare for spiritual growth. Instead it looks at them and says, "wow, people are so hungry for connection and self improvement that they're willing to listen intently to a man who's telling them that he doesn't have the answers and is a fake."

The people open up to Kumare about their troubled relationships and childhoods and see the caring and loving eyes putting their full attention on them. That would be enough for any of us. How often do you feel like you truly have someone's 100% attention focused directly on you and lovingly listening to your every word? That could make being around Kumare intoxicating.

And this is where Vikram Gandhi starts having some serious internal conflict. He never meant to make a fool of anyone; he was really just conducting an experiment. But he’s actually making a difference in people’s lives, a real, tangible, happiness that is radiating through these people who’ve struggled through addictions, abuse, uncertainty, and more. He’s not trying to swindle anyone out of money, or sleep with all the women the way that some of the guru’s were that he began the project covering. One of his students worked two or three jobs to support her four children who are now grown and out of the house. She now feels guilty when she does anything for herself. Kumare is helping this woman heal that pain. That’s real. Just because Kumare is a character doesn’t negate that progress and much needed and deserved happiness.

What is he doing to these people? How will they react when he tells them he's not who they think he is? He has to tell them, he has to come clean, but what will that mean? Will people feel betrayed? Will they realize that his "it's all inside of you already" teachings were still true no matter what source they came from? Vikram struggles mightily with when and where and how to reveal his true identity to his disciples. He realizes that Kumare is who he wishes he were in his every day life. Not the fake accent and robes, but the attentiveness, the being fully present and aware and engaged with every moment in life. Really listening to people and communing with them from his heart. Why isn't he like that all the time? Kumare isn't just a character, it's inside him. It all came from him. Why can't he live his life that way? Is that how easy it is to become the one you long to be? Just do it?

How his disciples react to the bombshell I’ll leave for you to discover, but I’ll say that I wonder how I would react if I was one of them. I wonder if I’d have a different feeling about the movie if I weren’t looking in from the outside. If a man had led me into some happier place in my mind, I’d likely be pretty pissed that that man was a fake. But seeing the movie as I do, I see that Vikram Gandhi has a good heart, and Kumare brought that out even more in him. He even says, “My idealized self is Kumare.” And aren’t we all looking to become the best version of ourselves?