You Can't Win

You Can't Win

This essay originally went out as an installment of The Laramie Report in 2016. It's wild for me to look back at it now, having finally (finally!!) directed my first feature.

I waste a lot of mental energy comparing myself to other people. Other indie-ish writer-directors, specifically, but really anyone indie-ish who is kicking ass and finding success will do. I look at them—premiering at Sundance, publishing a book of essays, getting profiled in The New Yorker—and I look at myself, where I'm at in my career, what I've achieved (or not achieved) so far, and I groan.

Ugggh that should be me.

Why isn't that me?

That'll never be me.

I should be thrilled for a fellow graduate of USC—a female director, no less—who bootstrapped it and self-produced her first feature and is now in wide release with her second.

Instead, I think ...

Crap, she’s how old? Crap.

It’s too late for me.


That is always my first thought.

Not a healthy way to navigate my one wild and precious life, and not one I'm proud to reveal. But there it is.

This is a long-winded way of explaining that I very intensely related to Mike Birbiglia’s Don’t Think Twice—a movie about what happens to a tight-knit improv troupe when one member achieves the dream, getting cast on “Weekend Live,” a lightly fictionalized “Saturday Night Live,” and the rest … don’t.

It’s not even the funniest guy who makes it (a detail I so appreciate). It’s the hammiest, savviest one of the bunch, played by Keegan-Michael Key.

The scene where he breaks the news—tells his best friends—I made it! I got it!—and their faces fall. Each of them. They can’t help but read his success as their failure.

Gah, do I relate to that.

His girlfriend, played by Gillian Jacobs, is maybe my favorite performer in the troupe. The preparing-for-the-big-audition montage, where she's working up a Katharine Hepburn impression—Aaaah! She's so great. The whole cast is great. As are the writing and directing and shooting. It's so spot on, I can't even muster the strength to hate Birbigs for making it. The movie cracked me right open.

There’s a terrific Jenga metaphor that comes up twice. (It came out of improv, Birbiglia revealed in a Q&A—it wasn’t scripted—which I love.) As these friends are hanging out, getting stoned, eating pizza, they play Jenga, not with an urgent competitive spirit, but just for something to do.

Each time, someone says idly, almost as though it’s a recurring joke, “How do you win at Jenga?”

The answer is: you don’t. Nobody wins. To play, you pull a wooden piece out of the middle of the stack, and you balance it on top, and the game just keeps going like that until the whole stack falls down.

Nobody wins at Jenga.

The second time they play the game—the second time someone says, “How do you win at Jenga?”

I don't think I'm spoiling anything by telling you it's after a funeral scene, part of a funny, sad, emotional sequence right at the end. Anyway, they're playing the game again, and someone says, "How do you win at Jenga?"

My eyes welled up, and I thought to myself, "It’s a metaphor."

It is a metaphor.

I stifled a sob.

I am not a sobber. But like I said, this movie cracked me right open. When the lights came up, I dashed into the ladies’ room and had a good, cathartic cry.

I just have to keep doing my thing. Pulling out another piece and adding to the top of the stack.

Key's character didn’t win. He achieved something, yes, he made "Weekend Live," but he’s now living under the constant threat of being fired. My near-classmate hasn’t won just because she's directed two features and (probably) has two more in the works.

You can’t win at Jenga.

You can not lose. You can keep playing. If the stack falls down, you can start all over again.


*Feature photo by Alena Darmel (Pexels)

Director and writer keen on telling honest, unexpected stories about complex female characters. Currently in post-production on a “grounded David Lynch”-esque feature I developed with Pipeline Media.
More posts by Laramie Dennis.
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