Improv comedy is a pretty easy punching bag for its scripted cousins. However awkward and pandering it can be at its worst, it only works at all as a team sport, and Mike Birbiglia’s Don’t Think Twice finds the natural drama that arises from that. Don’t Think Twice honestly confronts the arrested development, co-dependence, and jealousy that seems impossible to ignore, but is somehow sweet-natured and optimistic for its characters. It’s also often hilarious and works well enough as a simple hang-out comedy, with Birbiglia’s and the entire cast’s experience and affection for the material shining through every moment.
Don’t Think Twice centers on The Commune, a six-member improv troupe in New York City. After quickly outlining the basics of improv to a group of students (essentially, teamwork and no second-guessing), the movie establishes the core dynamics of the group. Miles (Birbiglia) is the longest-serving, and once had a near-brush with fame. They charge $5 per show entry, and the theater seems doomed to close. Most of them work demeaning second jobs (sandwich delivery, hummus-sample dispenser). Some natural pairs have formed, with Allison and Bill (Kate Micucci and Chris Gethard) writing together and Jack and Sam (Keegan-Michael Key and Gillian Jacobs) sleeping together. Most of them live together in a frat house of sorts, although Lindsay (Tami Sagher) lives with her well-off parents. All of them are bordering on or well past thirty. And when Bill’s dad suffers an accident, we see firsthand how the group comes together. When Jack and Sam both get a chance to audition for an ersatz Saturday Night Live, we see firsthand how the group can fracture.
The latter sounds like it could be mined for cheap melodrama, but Don’t Think Twice feels honest, and never vilifies any of its characters. All of their actions are reasonable, understandable, and mostly well-intentioned, and the friction and frustration is allowed to naturally bubble from its scenario and its characters. Birbiglia’s Miles, in particular, is not portrayed as a terribly self-aware person, but is far from irredeemable or unlikable. Key’s Jack has an awful tendency to steal scenes, but his commitment to the group is never in our eyes. And while the improv scenes can get a bit tacky, as in real life, their commitment to the act and to each other is never in question, and its easy to understand why through the arc of Jacobs’ Sam. As Gethard’s Bill puts at one point, even if he work at a grocery store, he feels like a superhero at night. As he also puts it though, he doesn’t want his dad to die thinking he’s a failure. It taps into all-too-relatable fears of aging out of your immaturity and the fear of your own mediocrity. It dwells in the inevitable contradiction of aiming to create collective art while also wanting to be the breakout star. But even though it realistically portrays the pitfalls of improv-troupe idealism, it ultimately celebrates the bonds that form from it. It earns its low-key optimism, and is a funny and touching journey to boot.
Don’t Think Twice (2016)
Dir. Mike Birbiglia
Starring Gillian Jacobs, Keegan-Michael Key, Kate Micucci, and Mike Birbiglia
Rotten Tomatoes (99%)