As January comes to a close, I find myself trying to catch up on all the movies that came out in 2016 that I needed to see, but never got around to. A daunting task, indeed. Who knows how long it’ll take me. Anyways, here’s my take on one of the flicks I checked out this week that I really enjoyed. Spoiler alert: there’s spoilers.
Written and directed by Mike Birbiglia and starring Keegan-Michael Key and Gillian Michaels, this film first attracted me through my love of Key and Peele and of improv comedy. Although I knew this was technically a “dramedy,” I didn’t expect some of the more serious themes that unfolded in the story, nor the intense feels that enveloped me. Through the personal stories of six improv troupe members (and best friends) Birbiglia explores a variety of human experiences and the complexities and intersections within them.
The story begins when two of the troupe members, Jack (Key) and Samantha (Michaels) snag an audition for the renowned comedy show Weekend Live (basically SNL). Jack nails the audition and lands the job. Samantha can’t bring herself to even go through with her audition. The change in Jack’s status as a comedian begins to create rifts in his romantic partnership with Samantha and his friendship and working relationships with the remainder of the troupe.
Samantha’s inability to audition is first perceived as a lack of self confidence and trust in her own talent. As a femme viewer, this is one the most relatable experiences of any of the characters. Being a comedian as a woman is hard, like most things. The comedy world is dominated by men, and women are often excluded and unwelcome. It’s understandable that Samantha would question her capabilities in this type of atmosphere, especially while being in a partnership with an incredibly talented male comedian. When one of her troupe members asks her to teach his class for him, she hesitates. “I’m not good on my own.”
Insecurity, self-doubt, and feelings of failure aren’t just exclusive to Samantha. Fellow troupe mates, Bill (Chris Gethard), Allison (Kate Micucci) and Lindsay (Tami Sagher) also live these experiences.
Bill, whose father is injured in a motorcycle accident, worries that he will never live up to his father’s expectations. A promising theatre student that once made his dad very proud, Bill as an adult has less claim to fame than his family anticipated. As his father’s health deteriorates, Bill becomes anxious over the possibility that his father will die believing his son is a failure. Allison, also an illustrator, is critical of herself when working on a writing portfolio to submit to Weekend Live in another attempt to get a job there. She also shares that she can’t seem to bring herself to finishing a graphic novel she’s been working on for years, which tells the story of a young girl who goes to sculpting school and fails, disappointing her hometown who raised the funds for her to go. Authors don’t always base characters off of themselves, but it’s hard not to connect Allison with this fictional girl in her unfinished novel. Lindsey’s experience is less flushed out, but still referenced in a therapy session, where she explains that although she doesn’t need the money (yay rich parents!) she still feels unfulfilled in being unemployed.
One troupe member that also struggles with the fear of failure and being unfulfilled, but in a specifically different way, is Miles (Birbiglia), the founder of the troupe. Throughout his conversations with almost all of the other characters, Miles expresses that he does not deserve to be stuck as just an improv teacher and performer. He belongs in the realm of famous, successful comedians. He believes he should have been given an audition (and a job) for Weekend Live–not Jack. Struggling with the complexities of jealousy, resentment, and bitterness, Miles comes across as the epitome of male entitlement. Although he still manages to be a somewhat likable character, Miles’ flaws are more present than any other character in the film. As an improv teacher, he is seen engaging in sexual relationships with his (much younger) students. He is dumbfounded when the last of his young sexual partners (prey?) calls an end to the relationship (arrangement?). “You’re like 40,” she tells him. “I’m 36!” he indignantly responds. At least Birbiglia makes it a point to recognize this as an unhealthy behavior, both in his writing and acting of the character.
The pivotal moment for Miles’ character development is his confrontation with Lindsey over the fact that she, too, has gotten a job at Weekend Live. He tells her she didn’t deserve it, that she gets everything handed to her (referring to her rich parents). To which she replies that she did not get this handed to her. She submitted a writing portfolio that was impressive–she was rewarded for her work and talent. He, on the other hand, just doesn’t “have it.” Filled with Male Tears, he shouts, “Fuck you!” In return, Lindsay responds, “You won’t. I’m not 22 or your student.” Can you tell this was my favorite part?
As the film comes to a close, our main focal point is brought back to Samantha’s character development. We come to find that while Samantha may have been insecure about her ability to be a successful comedian, she begins to realize how content she is with performing improv in a local troupe, rather than grasping for the ideal of her fellow comedy community–being a famous sketch comedian on live television. We see her transform from a comedian questioning her capabilities to an actualized woman who makes decisions about her life based on her own desires, and not grandiose ideals that she is expected to want. Her autonomy is solidified in an incredibly beautiful scene where she breaks up with Jack during an improv performance that he surprisingly shows up to and joins. As he tries to save her from the fictional well she has created in her scene, she tells him that she is fine there, that he does not have to save her and she is okay on her own.
What I took away from this film was not at all what I expected when I casually decided to Netflix-and-chill with my significant other. Samantha’s experience deeply resonated with my own feelings of self-doubt, my own fear of being a failure and the constant anxiety that I am not doing enough, succeeding enough, or living up to the expectations that my family and I have placed upon myself. But ultimately, like Samantha, we can flourish on our own, without the validation from our friends, our family, our partners or our communities. We can define what fulfillment means for ourselves, regardless of how that compares with others’ ideals of success. We can be good on our own and happy where we are, and we don’t need someone else to save us.