A feature film that centers around the life and times of an improv group in New York City definitely sounds like something a screenwriter in LA would pitch to his bosses at least once a year. That’s because you can make a decent film out of just about any idea, but it can be very challenging to craft a relatable film from a singular art, especially one that’s literally built around the idea of people “making things up as they go along.”
We can expect this kind of specific storytelling from a talent like Mike Birbiglia, one of the most understated comedians in the industry, as well as an exciting director and writer. His last film, Sleepwalk With Me, was a dramatic retelling of one of his most famous standup routines, an emotional (and funny) story about how his desperation to avoid marriage and commitment drove him to sleepwalking through a window and out of a building.
Don’t Think Twice is a stronger and more humorous film overall, but it still follows Birbiglia’s pattern of choosing one critical, uncomfortable plot point and driving the rest of the narrative around it. In this case, he’s going after the jealousy that forms from when someone becomes rapidly successful, and how that alters the lives and relationships of his closest friends (even the tagline drives this home with “the spotlight is not for everyone”).
This just happens to involve a popular improv group made up of six friends with immediate comedic talent as improvisation performers. They get on stage each week and play out improvised situations, always leaning off of the audience support of someone who has had a particularly hard day.
Don’t Think Twice kicks off in the middle of some harder times for the group, and it’s pushed further when Jack (played by Keegan-Michael Key) gets an audition for Weekend Live, the movie’s version of Saturday Night Live. Though his friends initially support him, it becomes clear that Jack’s newfound fame isn’t doing anything to improve his current relationships, including his romantic relationship with Sam (played by the true star of the film, Gillian Jacobs).
What follows from there is a deeply involved dramatic comedy that pits each improv member against each other and themselves, always decrying the “need” for selling out, while simultaneously working to make sense out of how Jack’s success says more about them than it does him. Jack’s 36-year-old teacher, Miles (played by Birbiglia), is the biggest culprit, as he can’t seem to understand why he hasn’t been able to reach the heights of his own students, moments after he’s lured another student to his “dorm room” apartment to have some fun.
The rest of the cast has less to do than Key, Jacobs, and Birbiglia, but they’re all as crucial to the film’s emotional punches as they are to the fictional improv performances they take part in. Chris Gethard as Bill gets a few small scenes that feel mostly servant to how his life affects the core members, even though he garners some of the biggest laughs from the film’s staged improv scenes. Tami Sagher gets even fewer attention, and tragically so, as she’s the only one in the group who is financially secure, despite losing her job and relying mostly on rich parents.
Kate Miccuci is certainly short-thrifted here, getting even fewer chances to have much of an impact despite her tremendous talent, but the saving grace is that Don’t Think Twice works best when the group is together on stage, at their favorite bar, and back at the shared apartment. Though not everyone gets their due, that’s sort of how improv tends to work, anyway. And as a result, Gillian Jacobs as Sam gets to shine in one of her best performances to date, culminating in a single scene toward the end of the film that is one of my favorite movie moments of 2016.
If you’ve ever had to deal with how friendships can always feel a little tense and competitive, which should be just about everyone, then Don’t Think Twice has something brutally honest to tell you, but it’s not a hand-wrung comedy. If anything, it excels more at being a vague, even loose passage of events, rather than a cohesive narrative that drives a single purpose that the audience must consume and accept all as one. In other words, it’s one of those few, modest films that actually has something for everyone.
- I love Sleepwalk With Me, but if you truly want a great intro to Mike Birbiglia’s comedy, check out his standup routine that the movie is based on.
- Also, here’s a somewhat interesting fact. Mike Birbiglia is the first mainstream comedian I’ve ever seen live.
- According to Birbiglia, the cast actually received instruction from a professional improv coach because Gillian Jacobs and Kate Miccuci had never actually performed this type of comedy before. Makes sense, though, when you consider that Jacobs went to Julliard.
- Birbiglia has also stated that the premise behind Don’t Think Twice mimics how Judd Apatow reacted when his roommate, Adam Sandler, was cast on Saturday Night Live decades ago, before either were famous. The pair have collaborated on a movie together: the 2009 dramedy, Funny People.
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