The new film Don’t Think Twice is my favorite kind of movie; it makes you laugh watching it and makes you think later on. In telling the story of the breakup of an improvisational comedy troupe in NYC, the movie celebrates how a combination of talent and camaraderie can produce infectious excitement. But it is also a cautionary tale about how group success falls prey to individual ambition.
The troupe specializes in taking a random comment from the audience and running with it, each member of the cast riffing on the contribution of the last. The comedic whole turns out to be much more than the sum of the individual contributions. The audience not only feeds off the creativity of the individual contributions, but also shares in the joy the cast members take in their collective enterprise. It’s great to be young, talented, and free to do your own thing, even if the joy is linked to a grad student standard of living and involuntary envy of the stars of hit shows like Weekend Live.
Tensions arise when one member, Jack, receives and accepts an offer to join the cast of Weekend Live. Suddenly this mutual admiration society transforms into a mutual recrimination society. The cast members left behind cannot help but see their colleague’s success as evidence of their own failure. They accuse Jack of selfishness and even plagiarism. He in turn is deeply wounded by his colleagues’ refusal to rejoice in his success, but also finds compensation in the knowledge that he is headed for a larger paycheck and a higher rung on the showbiz status scale.
Watching the film, I could not help but see Jack as a “winner” in moving up the ladder and his colleagues as “losers.” But writer /director Mike Birbiglia is too smart to make it a “winner take all” affair. Gradually the abandoned cast members start to move towards new futures with the knowledge that they had been true to each other and that at least once in their lives they had done something really good on their own terms. Maybe it will happen again.
And Jack finds there is a downside to his success. Not only has he lost his best friends, but he is no longer a creator of original comedy sketches. The head writer of Weekend Live makes clear that he sees Jack as only a small, well-paid cog in a large entertainment machine that has little interest in him beyond his next performance. It doesn’t look like Jack is going to be a new Richard Pryor or Bill Murray. More likely he will end up as the noisy neighbor on some network laugh-tracked sitcom.
That’s where the thinking starts to kick in. Maybe we’ve got the “winners” in Don’t Think Twice all wrong. It turns out that “winner” has more than one definition. In some contexts, it is the person who prevails in a contest. The Cleveland Cavaliers won the NBA title this year. But an alternative definition is “a good or successful person.” In short, someone we admire. By that definition, maybe it’s the abandoned colleagues who stayed loyal to each other and their work who are the winners.
Of course, if they were indeed “winners,” they were very lucky ones because almost all of them would have accepted an offer if they had received it. But that’s my point. We live in a culture that so magnifies the importance of status and income that we might be persuaded to act against our own self-interest more broadly considered. That is not to say that every disappointment you experience is a blessing in disguise, but some may be. And it’s important to recognize them–either at the time or later.
Is Ryan Lochte a “winner?” He has an Olympic medal so I have to say “yes,” but most of us still view him as a “loser.” I’m not suggesting that he became a “loser” at Rio; I think he just revealed his true self there. How about John Turturro’s character, John Stone, in the HBO mini-series The Night of? Stone doesn’t dress well or make much money, and his peers don’t show him much respect. But he’s a smart lawyer who earns enough to support himself and his cat in a modest lifestyle while representing people who really need representation. He’s a “winner” to me.
And then there’s Colin Kaepernick. Are the sports superstars who remain silent about race to protect their advertising contracts the ”winners” and the struggling quarterback who spoke out about racism as a matter of conscience a “loser?” You tell me.