Don't Think Twice (2016) / Drama-Comedy
MPAA Rated: R for language and some drug use
Running Time: 92 min.
Cast: Keegan-Michael Key, Gillian Jacobs, Mike Birbiglia, Chris Gethard, Tami Sagher, Kate Micucci, Maggie Kemper, Seth Barrish
Small role: Richard Kline, Pete Holmes, Richard Masur, Ben Stiller, Lena Dunham, Elel
Director: Mike Birbiglia
Screenplay: Mike Birbiglia
Review published August 7, 2016
Mike Birbiglia (Sleepwalk with Me) writes, directs, and co-stars in this seriocomic look at the improv comedy scene, focusing on one particular six-person troupe in New York called The Commune, one of many such comedy companies farmed by TV and movies for talent. The film astutely shows not only the difficulty of finding success in an industry where very few make enough to make ends meet, but also how the dynamic of friendships, partnerships, and even relationships change when one of them ends up "making it big," which, in this case, means landing a spot as a regular on the most-watched and longest-running sketch comedy show on TV, "Weekend Live" (an obvious allusion to "Saturday Night Live").
Birbiglia plays Miles, the eldest member of the Commune at 36, who teaches improv to younger up-and-comers in his spare time. He feed the hopes and dreams they all have, though all the while, he has grown more cynical and bitter with each passing year of finding himself exactly in the same place as he was the year before, while many of those who've learned from him are doing what he can only dream to do. Even though it seems a longshot at this point in his career, he sees little hope but to press on, even if the Brooklyn theater that hosts their shows is on the verge of closing down, and effectively putting the Commune on hiatus.
However, another member of the tight-knit troupe, Jack (Key, Keanu), has a career trajectory that looks like it has more promise, even landing an audition with "Weekend Live" that could mean a regular gig, and perhaps parlay this into a long-running career in comedy on TV and in films, if chosen. His girlfriend Samantha (Jacobs, Hot Tub Time Machine 2), who is also in the Commune and who also lands an audition, but feels less certain she can make that next step in her profession, finding it a scary proposition to effectively end her dreams by actually achieving them -- that it is always beyond her reach is what keeps her running after them.
Don't Think Twice's title speaks to the quick thinking that must be employed by improv comedians to keep the vibe and energy of their act running and to build upon each other's creative ides, in which there is an "all for one and one for all" mentality among the group that could definitely unravel when one of those members is no longer there to lend support. In fact, it only gets harder for those remaining to maintain a friendship with a person who "makes it" because they are expecting that person to "pay back" those who've helped to get him or her there, which creates a lot of awkward requests, demands, and rebuffs. Just having his popular presence there creates a persistent whirlpool of envy and feelings of inadequacy among a very hungry but hardworking group, sucking all of the oxygen out of their creativity, where things can no longer be what they were before.
Birbiglia infuses each character with his or her own personality and backstory (one is a hopeful but unpublished author and illustrator, another trying to come out from under her parents wealth to make it on her own, another has a family tragedy befall him, etc.), which does make us care for each of them, even if no character is on the screen for even half of the film's short 92-minute run time. Nevertheless, we feel the bond they have for one another, which makes for some poignant and heartbreaking moments down the road as all of these friends find themselves struggling to stave off feelings of inadequacy and self-loathing, and, hopefully, come to terms with one another as siblings who've managed to protect their emotional vulnerabilities into comedy. The casting is spot on, with an especially nice turn by Keegan-Michael Key showing a surprising range, both in drama and in romance, that should continue to propel him as, perhaps ironically, the star among this group of talented comedians and comedic actors.
Although it is a film about comedians, and we do get to glimpse some of their hilarious output while they're rehearsing and performing, Don't Think Twice plays more often as an incisive and authentic drama about funny people than it does as a comedy. Those who come into the movie expecting a laugh-a-second comedy may have their expectations unmet, but the deeper thematic undercurrents that come together so well should stave off feelings of disappointment coming out of it. Early on in the film, "Weekend Live" is compared to a professional sports event, where everyone's competing to make it to the bigs. Don't Think Twice shows is that "Wide World of Sports" in action, spotlighting the "thrill of victory; the agony of defeat", and also a modicum of bittersweet agony to the victory as well.
©2016 Vince Leo