The first screening of La La Land I attended was full of SAG-card carrying members. And every time an audition scene would come on, wherein we’d see the effort and disappointment scrawled all over working actress Mia’s face, I could feel them perk up. There was a feeling of recognition, of having been in those hallways surrounded by people who are better looking, even more talented, perhaps. But even as I was buoyed by the fantasy world created by Damien Chazelle, which cannot help but imagine a world in which Mia becomes the superstar she was destined to be, I kept coming back to another 2016 title that felt just as committed to representing the world of would-be stars in the making: Mike Birbiglia’s ensemble comedy Don’t Think Twice. Centered on an improv troupe in New York City, this quiet film sort of came and went without much fanfare, despite it being one of the most generous accounts of what it means to follow one’s dreams when everything around you is clamoring for you to give up.
La La Land is about, as it tells us in song, “the fools who dream.” Mia, played by Emma Stone, splits her days between her day-job at a coffee shop on a movie lot and the endless string of frustrating auditions all too familiar to working actors in Los Angeles. Those fools who dream are, in the film’s imagination, destined for greatness. When Mia, who’s suffered through many a grueling audition throughout the film, is presented with an opportunity to read for one last project, she voices the insecurity that no doubt cripples many in her shoes. “I’m not going to that. That one’s gonna be… that will kill me,” she tells Sebastian (Ryan Gosling). She’s been to a million auditions. There’s no reason this one will be any different. She’s afraid that, if she fails, it’ll be further proof that maybe she’s not good enough. “Maybe I’m one of those people that’s always wanted to do it, but it’s a pipe dream,” she says wistfully. Of course, neither Sebastian nor the film will allow her to wallow in that thought for too long. By the time Mia is back in Los Angeles meeting with the casting director, Chazelle gives Emma Stone (in one uninterrupted take) the chance to prove to all of us that her character is indeed good enough. The song Stone sings, “Audition (Fools Who Dream),” is as powerful a rallying cry for those many aspiring actors that litter and live in La La Land:
And here’s to the fools who dream
Crazy, as they may seem
Here’s to the hearts that break
Here’s to the mess we make
The messes these fools make and the hearts they break are mere side effects of the path that will rightly set them on to a life of success. There is no room in La La Land for failure. Or, rather, the many failures that greeted Mia throughout the film — those various auditions where she was ignored, passed over, and outright dismissed — are presented as stepping stones on the way to success. This is presented not so much as a promise as an inevitable outcome. After all, why else would we be following her story in the first place?
Where La La Land paints a colorful picture of dreams coming true, Don’t Think Twice mines instead the painful if more familiar feeling of seeing them slip away. Birbiglia’s film follows an improv troupe in New York City, The Commune. Played by the likes of Gillian Jacobs, Chris Gethard, Kate Micucci and Birbiglia himself, The Commune players are a tight-knit group that enjoys going on stage every week and making their audience laugh. But when the theater that hosts their improv night is set to close (to make room for, wouldn’t you know it, another Trump building!), the many plans for “the future” that had always lingered in the back of their minds begin to take new urgency. Just as Mia in La La Land pours her heart and soul into a one-woman play in hopes of finally grabbing that dream of hers by the horns, many of The Commune’s players begin breaking away from the group dynamic they’ve so depended on and begin mapping out a future for themselves. Allison (Micucci) is finally gonna get cracking on that graphic novel she’s been tinkering with for decades; Lindsay (Tami Sagher) starts to work on her writing sample for the SNL-esque Weekend Live, which has already called Sam (Jacobs) and Jack (Keegan-Michael Key) to audition. As for Miles (Birbiglia), who still loves to tell the story of how close he was to nabbing a spot on that coveted late night comedy show, well, he keeps finding himself unable to fulfill what he thought was a promising career as a comedy performer. Rather than stringing together a story of improbable successes premised on the idea that if you just work hard or long enough at it you’ll prevail, Don’t Think Twice focuses instead on what it means to reassess one’s idea of success. Stardom is, quite literally, reserved for the few. And while Hollywood loves nothing more than telling the story of those lucky few, of those “fools who dream,” Birbiglia’s generous film is focused on those who have no choice but to wake up.
More interestingly, Birbiglia’s hilarious comedy excels at sketching out the self-serving and narcissistic tendencies that characterize those who do succeed. When The Commune first hears that the Weekend Live producers are in the audience at one of their performances, they preemptively chide Jack for what they know will happen. Namely, he’ll violate one of the main rules of improv (“it’s all about the group”) and think of himself before thinking of his fellow players. True to form, he hijacks a sketch in order to showcase his uncanny and rather hilarious Barack Obama impersonation (no doubt what lands him a callback). When he later tells the story of how the audition went, he can’t help but put his foot in his mouth. “I thought, ‘If I don’t get this, I will kill myself!,’” he tells Bill (Gethard). “I actually thought that.” Without missing a beat, Bill is quick to quip, “Oh, you mean, if you had to live our lives?” It’s a lighthearted moment that’s nevertheless gets at the darker side of Jack’s ambition. He is so driven, not to mention talented, that the film doesn’t ever begrudge him his success. But it also doesn’t let him off the hook for his tone-deaf tunnel vision.
In stark contrast, Don’t Think Twice also presents Sam, Jack’s boyfriend. She is, perhaps, the most talented one of the group — you should see her Kate Hepburn and Gena Rowlands impressions — but also the least comfortable with that fact. She’s stunned when she also gets a callback for Weekend Live, but makes it clear that she feels embarrassed about being singled out from the peers and friends around her. Where Jack thinks only of his career and his prospects, Sam is constantly negotiating what getting that big break would mean for the community she’s created, the people she might have to leave behind. Just as Mia in La La Land, Sam is beset by insecurities ahead of her big audition. But there’s no sweeping inspirational speech that pushes her to face them and have them all wiped away when she lands the job. Instead, Sam retreats into herself and opts to avoid it altogether. What might otherwise be read as an ill-advised decision is presented instead as a sensible one. In what turns out to be a one-woman improv show towards the end of the film (everyone else has moved on to better, or more important things), she gives the type of tour de force performance that shows how intelligent and quick-thinking a performer she can be. When none of the audience members are willing to share helpful suggestions to her opening question (“Anyone had a particularly bad day today?”), Sam takes it upon herself to answer it herself. She feels like she’s in a well; trapped in a well. And as Sam mimics her former Commune players (including Jack) trying to help her out, she returns again and again to a simple but honest response to her current situation: she’s fine. It’s a bittersweet moment that rings true in the way that it doesn’t frame her decision to skip the audition as her giving in to her insecurities — or worse yet, giving up on her dreams of being a performer. She’s just mapping out a different path, a narrower one perhaps, but one which thrills her still.
Despite La La Land offering up a fantasy timeline for Mia in that sublime, final musical number, it cannot fathom her ever not becoming the star she is by the end of the film. But if I’m being honest, Don’t Think Twice’s Sam is as likely an image of Mia’s alternate future as you’re likely to find. It merely speaks to the different approaches these two films take on those dreaming fools. Befitting their respective locales, Chazelle’s film is relentlessly optimistic, Birbiglia’s begrudgingly realistic. Where Los Angeles offers an idyllic vision of dreamers, New York can’t help but set the stage for an all too depressing look at those left behind. But beyond that, they ultimately epitomize two sides of the same coin: the way every story of a performer making it big is necessarily premised (if not dependent) on a dozen others who couldn’t, wouldn’t or won’t make it at all.
Manuel Betancourt (@bmanuel) is a New York City-based writer, editor and critical thinker. He believes everything you need to know you can learn from watching Pedro Almodóvar’s Todo Sobre Mi Madre. He’s a member of the Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association (GALECA).