“Don’t Think Twice” starts off with a black and white montage of improvisation groups at work onstage. The important thing to notice is how the actors work together as a group and accept the ideas given to them. It’s never about trying to be funnier than the other person because that just throws the whole dynamic off. You simply work together and let the scene you have created flow from one place to the next, and if you are lucky you will reach comedy nirvana for yourself and the audience. But there’s always that one rule you most follow the most during improv: don’t think. Thinking just screws you up.
This movie completely understands the improv dynamic, and it’s no surprise it was written and directed by an actor, writer and a comedian, Mike Birbiglia, who has been in groups like those before. Birbiglia plays Miles, the senior member of an improv group named The Commune which has long since gained a strong following in the New York area. All the group members care for each other very much like family and live in the same building together. As they continue to perform and develop their talents, they keep pursuing what they see as the comedy holy grail, a comedy variety show called “Weekend Live.” Clearly, this show is a not so subtle stand in for “Saturday Night Live” as it promises fame and fortune for all those lucky enough to be cast on it.
Then one day two of The Commune members, Jack (Keegan-Michael Key) and Samantha (Gillian Jacobs), get called to audition for “Weekend Live,” and we know this is going to change everything for everybody no matter what happens. Jack ends up getting cast and his friends are happy for him, but once they see him on the show their excitement fades as they begin to wonder why they aren’t as successful as him. Another Commune member, Allison (Kate Micucci) wears a t-shirt that says “Friends Forever” on it, but you quickly get the feeling that this won’t be the case as the movie goes on.
All the characters in “Don’t Think Twice” are wonderfully realized by Birbiglia and the actors he has cast. There are no good or bad guys here, just a group of friends trying to support each other the best they can. It’s great that they have this support group as show business is always fiercely competitive, and what keeps them going is their love of acting and especially improv. Still, a number of roadblocks are put up in their general direction as the theatre they perform in gets sold, and they move into a more expensive venue they are unable to fill up. Also, their biggest fans are more eager to see Jack back in The Commune than to watch a Commune show without him.
I love everyone here is genuine in following their passion, and you see the price they pay for pursuing such elusive dreams. They work day jobs that are demeaning to say the least. Bill (Chris Gethard) in particular has a job at a local supermarket handing out food samples to customers who are typically quick to avoid him. He later remarks at how he had all the lead roles in his high school plays and now feels like his father looks at him as a loser. Like the others in the group he has no real interest in a desk job or any other 9 to 5 job, but the time is coming where he may have to question whether it is worth it to continue on the path he has chosen for himself.
It’s no surprise that everything “Don’t Think Twice” reaches a climax as feelings of bitterness and resentment come right up to the surface. Jack has gained a lot of fame in a short period of time, and he tries to help his friends out by passing their writing samples along to “Weekend Live’s” Lorne Michaels-like manager who instead urges him to write for himself. Miles feels he is owed a spot on “Weekend Live” and thinks he has been cheated out of what is rightfully his. Everyone else comes to see what they have sacrificed to be a part of The Commune, and now they wonder if it was worth the price. This makes the movie more intense as you know these people will eventually explode at one another, and you hope the damage isn’t too great that it can’t be repaired.
Now many other movies like this one would have ended on a note of bitterness to where enemies are made and friendships are forever destroyed, but Birbiglia doesn’t do that here. While failure is not an option for many starving artists, for others it is. Or perhaps they shouldn’t look at this as failure and instead as a chance to redirect their energies. This could have been an infinitely pessimistic movie, but Birbiglia manages to soften the blow in a way that feels honest and genuine. He shows us people who start to wonder if it is time to move on to something, but they never lose their love of improv. They all may not be able to make a living off of performing, but they don’t have to give up on it either.
My hat is off to the actors who have clearly been through the various ups and downs of an acting career and been involved with groups like these. Keegan Michael Key is terrific as the breakout cast member who struggles to exist in a high-pressure showbiz world that is not as welcoming as The Commune. Gillian Jacobs is also a standout as one who is so committed to her group that the thought of leaving it feels so wrong to her. Birbiglia is perfect as the improv teacher who occasionally sleeps with his students who eventually find him to be a 40-something weirdo, and the fact that he is actually 36 doesn’t seem to help matters. Kate Micucci, Tami Sagher and Chris Gethard also have their wonderful moments as the supporting players who are desperate to validate their worth in the eyes of others.
I apologize if I make “Don’t Think Twice” sound like a depressing picture because I certainly don’t mean to. It’s a movie as moving as it is funny, and some parts of it are very funny. It has a lot of hope in it even as it deals with the increasing odds against making it in show business and how New York real estate has gotten far too expensive for any artist of any kind to live there. It also shows how your love for your art and your friends is undying and always helps you through the toughest of times. It’s a heartfelt movie that is genuine in its emotions, and its lessons on improvisation are true and to the point.
Don’t think, just go and see “Don’t Think Twice.”
* * * ½ out of * * * *
Copyright Ben Kenber 2016.