Comedian Mike Birbiglia made headlines a few weeks back when he took to Twitter to express his frustration with the MPAA's decision to slap his latest film, "Don't Think Twice," with an "R" rating simply because the film had a couple scenes in which adults smoke pot. Meanwhile, Birbiglia argued, a film like "Suicide Squad" can be loaded with non-stop violence (however bloodless), show characters being decapitated, mowed down by machine guns, swords, and bombs, and only merit a "PG-13." Birbiglia called the reasoning "confusing" and "insane."
He's got a valid point.
These arguments are nothing new: There's been debate over the film rating process for nearly as long as the system has existed, with filmmakers pointing to a clear bias on the part of the MPAA in favor of major studio filmmaking. Studio-funded films are consistently granted more leeway with the type of material they're allowed to present, while hamstringing independent filmmakers like Birbiglia (watch the excellent 2006 documentary "This Film Is Not Yet Rated" for a more detailed examination of the MPAA and its obtuse rules and regulations).
For a film like "Don't Think Twice," the adult rating has the effect of limiting its already somewhat niche audience. This is all the more frustrating since the indie comedy is filled with ideas that a younger audience might actually relate to and even benefit from. But because of the rating, most won't even be allowed in the door.
Birbiglia plays Miles, the leader of New York City improv troupe The Commune, whose ranks are rounded out by the ambitious Jack (Keegan-Michael Key, "Key and Peele"), his more laidback girlfriend Samantha (Gillian Jacobs, "Community"), anxious aspiring cartoonist Allison (Kate Micucci), her perhaps too-amiable writing partner Bill (Chris Gethard), and Lindsay (Tami Sagher), who's a bit too content to rest on her laurels.
The film's seriocomic story revolves around what happens when the theater the group has called home for 11 years gets put up for sale, forcing each member to -- for the first time in a long while -- consider what their next steps will be. When some of them land a big break -- in this case, gigs on a "Saturday Night Live" style comedy show -- the seams in the group begin to show, and certain members demonstrate that they're more equipped to handle these changes than others.
As each member evaluates where their life has lead them and whether they're happy with where they've landed, Birbiglia doesn't let any of his characters (including himself) off the hook, all-the-while maintaining an obvious, deep affection for each of them.
"Don't Think Twice" examines the effects of fame, ambition, envy, and disappointment in hilarious and often painfully honest fashion. It's about the hard work involved in chasing your dreams, and how long you continue to do so before deciding that it's time to settle and accept what you have; all concepts that I suspect people of any age can wrap their heads around, so long as they're actually allowed to see the film.
For his part, shortly after the MPAA brouhaha, Birbiglia posted a new version of his film's poster, complete with his own explanation for the "R" rating: "Friendships, humor, explicit truths about life, someone smokes pot, realistic male shirtlessness, no murders, a studio won't make billions."