Improvisational comedy relies on an ensemble having each other’s backs. When there’s support, it’s easier to try big and fail than it would be as a solo experience. As legendary improv teacher Del Close is quoted in Don’t Think Twice, “Fall, and then figure out what to do on the way down.” Writer/director Mike Birbiglia’s sophomore effort is a rare look at the improv comedy world that doesn’t treat the medium as a joke, rather looking at the very real stakes of what happens when one star shines while the others stay stagnant. Don’t Think Twice is Birbiglia actually killing two birds with one stone, showcasing a type of comedy that is terrifying in concept, while also seamlessly tackling when one’s life can be held back by embracing one’s dreams.
For the members of the improv troupe the Commune, their success on the stage is the greatest accomplishment they have. The founder of the Commune Miles (Birbiglia) has been hoping for years that he will get a second chance to make it onto “Weekend Live,” a very obvious transplant for Saturday Night Live. The six-member group is incredibly strong together, but separate, they’re all floundering through life. Bill (Chris Gethard) works giving samples out at a grocery store, Allison (Kate Micucci) has been working on a book for eight years, and Lindsay (Tami Sagher) relies on her parents for support.
After scouts from “Weekend Live” visit the Commune’s show, they offer auditions to the group’s two stars, Samantha (Gillian Jacobs) and her boyfriend Jack (Keegan-Michael Key). When Jack gets a role on the show, the resentment and jealousy from the group comes out in different ways, which only grows when the Commune’s theatre is shut down.
In its opening moments, Don’t Think Twice sets up the three key rules to improv comedy: 1) Say yes. 2) It’s all about the group. 3) Don’t think.
As all of these rules are broken, we see how it morphs this group, the individuals within the group and how their different views of success manifests itself. What Birbiglia posits is that while we all might fight for the same dreams, few will get them, yet the way our dreams evolve and present themselves in different ways can be just as rewarding. Don’t Think Twice shows these six and how they are forced to change their goals when the successes of another seemingly slip out of their hands.
Birbiglia’s script is both Don’t Think Twice’s biggest gift and curse. Somehow the many improv scenes play incredibly naturally, despite about only half of the cast having much of a background in improvisation. He’s also able to showcase just how wonderful humor can be as a coping mechanism, and a hindrance. When Bill’s father is admitted to a hospital, the group almost immediately starts mocking the way Bill’s father talks. It’s almost as if they can’t help but present their emotions in this way, yet it helps everyone involved through a very rough time where comedy can’t usually be found.
But as Birbiglia states, the group is often better than the individual, which is unfortunately true when it comes to the attention given to some of the film’s characters. Micucci, Gethard and Sagher are all fantastic here and all have an inherent sadness in their characters. Beyond a few solo moments though, not much attention is paid to them. Much like Sleepwalk With Me, Birbiglia delves into his own personal life for his story, as he is torn between family life and the world of comedy. But at the forefront of the story, Jacobs and Key are exceptional, showing an emotional weight they rarely get to show in their comedies. One pivotal moment near the film’s end could have come off as convenient and cheesy, but the performances they bring to the scene transcends that.
Birbiglia’s melancholy second feature embraces the biographical feel of Sleepwalk With Me, but ties it into an ensemble, with a series of different conflicting ideas and responses, all of which feel like he’s known deeply. His first film was an extension of his own story and comedy, and while that’s here, Don’t Think Twice has him exploring his own struggle with failure and morphing his modest successes in ways that show his growth as a filmmaker and storyteller. Even though Birbiglia might treat his characters with kid gloves, it’s the love, warmth, and humor that stands out beyond the pain that seeps underneath. It’s not perfect, but even great improv rarely is.