Don’t Think Twice
Directed by: Mike Birbiglia.
Written by: Mike Birbiglia.
Starring: Keegan-Michael Key (Jack), Mike Birbiglia (Miles), Gillian Jacobs (Samantha), Kate Micucci (Allison), Tami Sagher (Lindsay), Chris Gethard (Bill).
Mike Birbiglia’s film Don’t Think Twice knows the world of Improv inside and out in a way that only someone who was inside that world for years could know. Birbiglia is best known now as a stand-up – especially for his work that has made to This American Life (whose host/producer, Ira Glass, helped to produce this film) – but he’s also known Improv for a long time as well – as has almost the entire cast of the film (the exception being Gillian Jacobs). That helps make the film work as well as it does – and seem as closely observed as it is. For a comedy, Don’t Think Twice isn’t all that funny – bit even in the Improv scenes themselves, although they are clever. But Birbiglia seems to be going for a more melancholy tone to his film, and knows too much outward laughs may break the mood.
The film centers on one, Brooklyn-based improv group known as The Commune. We see some of their shows, and you can tell that they are good – they have an easy chemistry together, play off each other well, and never violate the first rule which is to always being saying “Yes, and…” to everything each other throw out there. Two things threaten to pull the group apart. The first is that in the theater where they perform is going to close down – it’s valuable New York real estate – too valuable to be a dimly lit theater for improv performers. They find another venue – but they’re going to have to pay to perform there, although there are promises of splitting money after everything has been earned back – something we in the audience are far more skeptical of than anyone in the troop (probably because they want it to be true). The second thing is that two of their group are invited to audition for a SNL clone, Weekend Live – and one of them actually gets it. It’s awkward afterwards, since that character has become a star, but still occasionally comes back to perform with the group – in part because his girlfriend was another member of the cast.
Each of the six members of The Commune have their own kind of arc throughout the film – and though they play out the way you kind expect them to, it doesn’t feel clichéd that they do. Keegan-Michael Key plays Jack – the member who eventually ends up on Weekend – and it was a smart decision to cast him, since we immediately recognize the talent that got him there. It is a smart, subtle performance from him though – he doesn’t become an ego-maniac or start to ignore his friends though – not really. But the pressure of being on the show is more than he thought it was going to be. It puts strain on his relationship with Samantha (Gillian Jacobs) – his girlfriend. When they were on the same level, they were fine – they just wanted to make each other laugh. But a distance grows as two people who thought they were on the same page realize they aren’t.
The rest of the group have their own issues. Birbiglia himself plays Miles, the de facto leader of the group, slightly older than the rest, an improv teacher, who gets more and more bitter every time another of his former students passes him professionally. He’s kind of like the hero of the Coens Inside Llewyn Davis – he’s talented enough to keep thinking he’ll have a chance one day, but not talented enough to ever quite get there – so he’s now in his late thirties, living like he’s still 22 (and sleeping with his 22 year old students). Kate Micucci is Allison – who is good at improv, but is also an artist – working on her graphic novel for a decade now, without quite finishing it – insecure enough to never be done, because then she would have to submit it, and perhaps get rejected. Tamo Sagher is Lindsay – whose parents have money, so unlike the rest of them, she can just sit around all day getting stoned, instead of working a day job they don’t like. Chris Gethard is Bill, whose father has a health scare that puts everything else in perspective.
Don’t Think Twice is a comedy, sure, but it’s not particularly funny. You watch it almost like the characters watch Weekend Live – they don’t much laugh, but analyze why they think what is onscreen is funny or not. It’s a movie that loves Improv, without romanticizing it – it knows full well that most people who get into it, will never become successful at it- even as successful as the characters in the movie, which barely qualifies as success. It’s a subdued, quietly touching, quietly funny movie.