Gillian Jacobs spends most of the recent 2020 movie I Used to Go Here roaming around a college campus, feeling both self-conscious and nostalgic about her long-gone college years. Longtime fans of Community (or anyone who discovered the show after its recent arrival on Netflix) may feel nostalgic, too, for a couple of reasons. First, the movie finds Jacobs back on campus, five years after the college-set Community ended its six-season run. And second, Jacobs, like her former castmates, hasn’t exactly been overexposed over the course of those five years. Most of the show’s actors have worked steadily, but none of them seem to have attempted the jump into mainstream studio-comedy stardom, either in film or TV. When members of the Greendale Community College class of 2015 stars in movies, they do their best to stay unusually prickly, uncomfortable, and weird.
This development wasn’t necessarily easy to predict back when Community was airing. While the show generally approached its broader subjects of social support and togetherness with gratifying thorniness, ambition, and complexity, its tone is ultimately pretty sweet, in part because of the likable cast. It’s easy to picture Joel McHale, Gillian Jacobs, Alison Brie, Danny Pudi, Donald Glover, or Yvette Nicole Brown jumping over to romantic comedies or family films, and in a few cases, that’s happened: Brie made the lovely (though little-seen) rom-com Sleeping with Other People, while Pudi and Brown have taken plenty of family-friendly voiceover gigs. But as their careers have progressed, especially into leading roles, it’s become increasingly clear that the Community gang shares an affinity for difficult, isolated characters.
In some cases, it’s more like a speciality. Community made a running gag of Gillian Jacobs’ character Britta being insufferable for her outspoken (and often thinly conceived) activism. In movies, Jacobs tends to invert that characterization, playing women making visible attempts to stay cool and casual while seething with discomfort or jealousy. In I Used to Go Here, she’s a debut novelist who accepts an invitation from her old English professor to give a reading at her alma mater, while she’s still smarting from a recent breakup. During her weekend visit, she regresses to hanging out with 20-year-olds while attempting to give practical, cynical advice to aspiring writers as a try-out for a faculty job. She’s both embarrassed and thrilled at the chance to evoke her bygone youth. Jacobs communicates all this through layers of private self-doubt, public self-deprecation, and attempts at decisiveness. Few performers are so skilled at showing the work that goes into polite social interaction.
I Used to Go Here isn’t as incisive or surefooted as Life Partners, another low-key comedy where a Jacobs character struggles to tamp down her anger. These Jacobs characters aren’t exactly woman-child types — they’re often professionally accomplished — but their images of success don’t match the reality of thirtysomething life. Here hits plenty of false notes about publishing, academia, and personal failures. Jacobs always rings true, though, especially when she’s just barely containing her discomfort.
Her Community co-star Alison Brie contains even less of her discomfort in Horse Girl, the Netflix release she co-wrote and stars in. As with I Used to Go Here, much of the movie’s interest derives from its lead actor attempting to perform the rituals of adulthood. Brie’s character has genuine mental-health issues, the kind of material that can turn actors attention-hungry and condescending. In Horse Girl, Brie zeroes in on the casual social interactions — making friends, flirting, dealing with a roommate who doesn’t understand you — that can be trying in the best of circumstances, and distorts them into scenes that are somehow both cringy and relatable.
2020 has been a big year for Community stars in roles where they struggle with adult responsibilities: Gravitas Ventures, the studio that put out I Used to Go Here, also recently released Babysplitters, which stars Danny Pudi as Jeff, a man hesitating at the thought of parenthood, even though his wife Sarah (Emily Chang) is more than ready. Jeff and Sarah wind up striking a strange bargain with another couple, where the foursome will co-parent a single baby — a sort of pre-built blended family. Babysplitters is largely terrible, in large part because it has trouble telling the difference between farce and soap opera. But it’s striking that Pudi, in one of his biggest roles ever in terms of screentime, embraces that role’s queasier attributes.
Pudi plays Jeff as so fussy and neurotic that Babysplitters gives most of its draggy two-hour running time over to investigating his conflicts and hang-ups about family planning, often in excruciating detail. (This is a movie that includes two different multi-minute speculative montages springing from therapy sessions.) It’s an immersive dive into his psyche, even if that psyche deals mostly in self-indulgent nonsense.
While Pudi’s Community character Abed often favored pop-culture rabbit holes over “normal” human interactions, in Babysplitters, Pudi has found a way to be vastly more off-putting, even as someone who’s supposed to be more mature. Pudi plays a more superficially Abed-like character in the Apple sitcom Mythic Quest: Brad, a “monetization” guy whose single-minded focus on profits resembles a dark mirror of Abed’s obsessive cataloging of cultural tropes and cliches. But even in a show with some Community parallels, Pudi avoids the more crowd-pleasing aspects of Abed’s personality. Abed isn’t an overtly emotional character, but Brad’s detachment is fueled by avarice and self-interest.
Of all the Community cast, Donald Glover, Pudi’s frequent scene partner for some of the most beloved bits on Community (“Troy and Abed in the Morning!”), may have had the most interesting post-Community career. Unlike his castmates, he isn’t reveling in quirky comedies and arrested-development characters. But he’s traveled afield from his character’s cuddly nerdiness, in favor of his often-confrontational music career as Childish Gambino. Even Atlanta, while nominally a comedy, is surreal and melancholy. At the same time, while the characters he’s playing feel more adult and complete than the ones in I Used to Go Here or Babysplitters, they’re still strange and unconventional figures, designed to imbalance viewers and get them thinking about race and class in America. Even his Magic Mike XXL role, as the house singer in a lavish strip club, is a provocation, a weird collection of tics and compliments who exists to make the audience rethink how they see and approach women romantically.
Notably, these Community actors embracing these uncomfortable uncertainties are all women or minorities, representing a more substantial risk in a culture that still prizes traditional likability. Joel McHale, the show’s white-guy lead, has done more TV guest shots than big movies, though he did amusingly play another form of unlikable character when he imitated his Community star Chevy Chase in a bit part for A Futile and Stupid Gesture. Chase himself, who clashed with various figures behind the scenes at Community, hasn’t done much of note since leaving the show, probably owing to his difficult reputation.
Chase is also a remnant from another era, where a familiar movie-star face showing up in a movie was supposed to confer an automatic friendliness, even if that star frequently played supercilious, self-flattering jerks. It’s easy to lament that stars of the past seemed more grown-up, and less likely to seem awkward and adrift well into their 30s. But buying into those grown-up images often involves taking a degree of accumulated goodwill for granted. Of course figures like Chevy Chase seemed older and more adult in their breakthrough roles; they’re fully aware that they’re supposed to be the stars of their shows.
Seeing younger Community cast members opt out of this value system can be exciting, even if the movies themselves don’t always work. Instead of treating their complicated character arcs from Community as missions accomplished, they’ve taken one of the show’s messages to heart as they move on to increasingly disparate projects: The messes of growing up don’t suddenly turn tidy with age.