Over the course of the past 50 years, improvisation has become an integral part of the comedy landscape. As improv troupes have expanded over the years more and more of the day’s top comedic voices emerge from the improv community, like the Upright Citizens Brigade and the Groundlings. The world of improv is the inspiration for Mike Birbiglia’s follow up to his stellar comedy-drama Sleepwalk With Me, the charming and heartfelt Don’t Think Twice. Featuring a roster improv pros, Don’t Think Twice delves deep into the community that operates under the axiom of “yes and,” finding deeply universal themes about dreams, aspirations, competition, and watching from the sidelines as others succeed ahead of you.
The comedy troupe known as The Commune operates out of a small little theater in the heart of New York City. Consisting of five closely knit members, each member of The Commune has grand aspirations to be a major player in world of comedy. Led by Miles (Birbiglia), a longtime staple of the troupe and teacher for The Commune’s improv classes, the troupe also features the boyfriend and girlfriend duo of Jack (Keegan-Michael Key) and Samantha (Gillian Jacobs); Lindsay (Tami Sagher), born of affluent parents that aid her dreams of comedy stardom; Bill (Chris Gethard), the struggling awkward comedian who hopes to make his successful father proud; and Allison (Kate Micucci), the eccentric and quirky wide-eyed girl. Every night they take the stage, ask the audience for suggestions, and go with the flow in creating unique comedy situations out of thin air.
Every weekend, the group sits together drinking beers and smoking weed while watching Weekend Live, the Saturday Night Live stand-in. They routinely mock the ineffectual comedy of the show while each expressing their own willingness to step in and become featured performers on the show. As they learn their beloved theater is closing, the group is stunned to learn that scouts from Weekend Live are there to watch them perform, but only Jack and Samantha get auditions. Eventually, they learn that Jack has secured a spot on the roster of Weekend Live, igniting a firestorm of ambition and jealousy from the varied members of The Commune, with each trying in their own way to get writing packets together to try and secure writing gigs on the late night comedy institution.
As much as Don’t Think Twice is about the New York improv scene, and it is thoroughly embedded there, it’s how the story connects to aspects of life that are universal where the film has its most impact. Some characters wonder if they’ll ever make it while watching their partners ascend into the limelight. Whatever occupation you might work in, watching others succeed beyond you can be incredibly difficult to watch, leaving you questioning your own self-worth. And that’s what these characters are going through on the screen, with Birbiglia using a close-knit world like improv as the backdrop.
Between the script by Birbiglia and the roster of performers, Don’t Think Twice is really clicking on a cylinders. There’s incredible balance on display between the film’s comedic elements and its emotional content, one that every performer on screen is capable of displaying with empathy and depth to their characters. Birbiglia gives himself a character that is stuck in his station, an institution yet to be recognized outside of his own little bubble. Keegan-Michael Key plays his character with raw ambition; Gillian Jacobs brings a fear of success, a yearning for things to remain the same to Samantha. Meanwhile, Chris Gethard gives one of the film’s more surprising performances as a comedian unsure of his future and dealing with his father’s declining health. Gethard displays a tenderness and sensitivity that he brings to his talk show (The Chris Gethard Show) that hasn’t been seen on any of his numerous television appearances as a supporting actor. Both Tami Sagher and Kate Micucci have their moments to shine, but for the most part their characters are sort of lost in the shuffle of the ensemble.
As a director, Birbiglia does a wonderful job in keeping the film cinematic in its look and brisk in its pacing. The scenes of The Commune performing are often done in longer takes, allowing the spark of spontaneity to be clearly visible to the audience and not diluted in a haze of editing. Where so many movies that feature improv have the tendency to lead into rambling scenes that run on well past their point, Don’t Think Twice keeps the moments of unabashed improv contained as part of a larger story that often compliments the elegantly composed shots.
Love is overflowing from Don’t Think Twice. Mike Birbiglia shows his love for comedy, for the improv scene, and the diverse set of characters that inhabit it. In these characters he finds universal emotions that drive the central conflict of the movie without judging any of the characters for their actions. Jack’s ambition isn’t frowned upon by film itself, only the other characters. However, those other characters have their own set of deficiencies that lead to their judgement. Never at any point is there anything but love for each of these people, because Birbiglia is smart enough of a filmmaker to know that people make their own decisions and forge their own paths, and if they do it without malice towards others there’s no crime committed. Don’t Think Twice runs you through a gamut of emotions without any bitterness, only earnestness. When the show’s all but over, there are no loose ends to be wrapped up. The bit is over without any need for another “yes and.”
Don't Think Twice
Writer-director Mike Birbiglia’s Don’t Think Twice is a funny, smart, and heartfelt story about universal themes of chasing your dreams set against the backdrop of the New York City improv scene.