Don't Think Twice full movie review - Yes and...
The rules of improv theater are displayed prominently within the first thirty seconds of Don't Think Twice. 1. Say yes; never deny the reality of your stage partners but instead build on that world however you can.
2. It's all about the group. Either the entire group has a good night, or like attempting to build a plane in mid- flight, the group falls together. 3. Don't think. Needless to say all three rules are broken as director, writer and star Mike Birbiglia weaves his love letter. A love letter to improv theater; its success stories, its pratfalls, its failures and those who feel the timorous high of the stage bug.
The fierce, enthusiastic members of The Commune caught the bug long ago and have been spending their nights performing in front of an audience for years, with little more than a row of wooden chairs. The troupe includes the capricious Bill (Gethard), the shy Allison (Micucci), the endowed Lindsay (Sagher), Miles (Birbiglia) the veteran sad-sack and up-and-comers Jack (Key) and Samantha (Jacobs). As per tradition, The Commune rub a wooden bear for good luck, briefly introduce themselves and ask the audience "who here has had a really rough day today." Thus they turn tragedy, or at the very least inconvenience into comedy for $25 a ticket which barely covers the cost of stage space.
The dynamics of the group however change when word that a producer from "Weekend Live", an SNL (1975-Present) analogue, is said to be in the audience. Knowing this, Miles immediately warns Jack not to showboat. He insists he won't, but a contrived Barack Obama impersonation in the middle of a game reeks of deliberate tampering. Out of the six, Jack and Samantha are asked to audition for their big break, causing the rest of the group to take stock of their lives and "careers" as starving artists.
Segments of the ensembles' routine lives are interspersed with free- wielding moments on the warmly lit stage where they play their games. Those routine lives are punctuated by day jobs waiting tables, increasingly desperate attempts to bed women and unexpected personal tragedy. Yet as Bill says at one point, "I feel like I have a secret life...I kill it up on that stage." It's home to this castaway group of players and while their improv may not always be gold, it's always theirs.
The strongest aspect of Don't Think Twice is its story, which warmly embraces all its characters with understanding and deep appreciation for their craft. Conflict arises but it never emerges with the blood-and-thunder competitiveness and intensity of other showbiz stories. Once the group is prodded by Jack's success, they start to, as Miles puts it "look out for number one." Yet within context everything they do for themselves (and occasionally to each other) is never done with maliciousness. These are inherently good people, caught between the purity of their art and the commerce of what they sell.
Selling it the most is Keegan-Michael Key as Jack, whose newfound success brings new hurdles, challenges and pressures. He gets it from both sides; his Lorne Michaels-esque boss half-jokingly tells him he'd be lucky if he's not fired after one season. Meanwhile his former troupe harbors jealousies and angle for writing positions he simply can't deliver. To add to his isolation, Jack has been dating Samantha who seems to no longer share his ambitions.
If there is one aspect of Don't Think Twice that diminishes its vitality it comes from an anti-cinematic, almost gonzo approach to its subject matter. While never edging into navel-gazing mumblecore, improv as a catharsis to a sullen group in existential crisis mode smacks of inside baseball. Their are extended moments of the troupe struggling to find their groove resulting in some cringe-worthy "off-nights" which deflate the energy of the story for the sake of realism. Yet if the worst thing that you can say about a film is it "feels too real," then is it really a problem?
Don't Think Twice is an affectionate send up to they type of structured chaos that sprouted out of The Compass Players, the originators of modern improvisational theater in the early twentieth century. Sharp and observant, Mike Birbiglia wisely edges past the drama-about- comedy clichés that torpedoed similar films like Funny People (2009), Punchline (1988) and even Birbiglia's last effort Sleepwalk with Me (2012). It pushes back on the idea of ambition for the sake of ambition, resting on the aphorism "Art is long, life is short."