Reviewed by Selma Thompson
On a makeshift stage, in a shabby room that can barely be called a theater, some cheap chairs are set out in a row for an evening’s performance. Mike Birbiglia’s wise, low-key comedy Don’t Think Twice opens from the point-of-view of The Commune, a New York City Improv theater group about to do their weekly show. They look out onto…nothing. All they will have to rely on are those chairs for props, and each other. They will project their dreams and their rivalries, their delusions and their affirmations, onto that bare stage. Often the results will be witty, and sometimes moving, but never glamorous. Birbiglia is not interested in another show biz story, but rather, a clear-eyed Valentine to a talented group of friends who have devoted their lives so far to modest creative “careers”, and the odd jobs they work to support their comedy habit. No longer in their 20s, with middle-age not so far off, how long can the show go on?
The events that throw the group into crisis are mostly small-scale and relatable, much to writer/director Birbiglia’s credit. Bill (played by real-life Improv guru Chris Gethard of New York’s Upright Citizens’ Brigade) has an old father whose health issues may pull Bill back home to Pennsylvania. Lindsay (Tami Sagher) may be getting too old to live at home and unsuccessfully sneak weed into her childhood bedroom. Birbiglia turns an equally truthful eye on his own character, Miles. Miles started The Commune in his twenties and now also teaches Improv—his former students’ careers have outstripped his own; his current students find him too old to sleep with; and his shared living situation, complete with loft bed, exposed pipes that must be ducked, and unpainted plywood partitions, is not bohemian—just sad. Miles must face up to these truths when an actual grown-up woman, Alicia (Kati Rediger), stops in New York to visit him on her way back to their hometown from a European vacation.
Despite these challenges, perhaps the group might muddle along for a few more years were it not for two final straws. The hole-in-the wall where they perform is being turned into condos (this is a New York story, after all). And…Commune members, Jack (Keegan-Michael Key) and Samantha (Gillian Jacobs) get asked to audition for “Weekend Live” (Birbiglia’s wink at “Saturday Night Live”).
Here’s where Birbiglia’s story might have gone off the rails, but he never lets the “Big Break” story-line hijack the movie. The petty jealousies and assumptions that almost ruin these friendships will ring true to any audience member who ever got a promotion at any job and then had to deal with co-workers. Interestingly, Jack and Samantha find themselves feeling quite differently about their “success”, a tension complicated by the fact that they are a couple. Like the rest of The Commune, Jack and Samantha must ask themselves why they do what they do, and their answers are deeply personal. Bill and Lindsay and Miles, suddenly forced to acknowledge their own ticking clocks, attempt to step up their career game, as does Allison (Kate Micucci) the quietest member of the group, who turns out to have some hidden talents.
The Commune cannot go on, but perhaps their friendships can? And what initially looks like a story about “making it in the big city”, soon poignantly addresses adult concerns like caring for a parent; raising a baby; rethinking what home means; and redefining one’s passion.
And yes, this is a comedy. Birbiglia suggests that we are what we do—and an Improv comedy troupe will deal with life’s challenges one joke at a time. One memorable sequence involves the gang driving home from visiting Bill’s father in the hospital. The sadness and tension in the car is relieved when one of the friends does an “impression” of the sick man’s slurred speech. Initial reactions of horror soon turn into a competition, as each member of the troupe critiques and improves upon the others’ impression. Chris Gethard steals the movie at that moment, as we feel Bill take crazy comfort in being surrounded by the people he trusts most, both on and off stage, and the emotional release of laughter. Gethard and Birbiglia knew this moment verged on bad taste, but went with it because something similar actually happened among a group of Improv comics.
Without ever being heavy-handed, Birbiglia has woven a documentary-like appreciation of modern Improv into his delicate narrative. We see stills from early casts of Chicago’s groundbreaking Second City. Samantha teaches aspiring comics by quoting the late Del Close, mentor of so many famous comedians, who literally wrote the book on Improv when he coauthored the seminal “Truth in Comedy”. Throughout, Birbiglia’s camera hones in lovingly on the little rituals and games of Improv troupes. We learn the Improv commandments: “It’s all about the group.” “We’ve got your back.” “Respect the Group Mind.” And, of course, for performers to always be fully present in the moment, or as the cast reminds each other, “Don’t think twice”.
If you find yourself thinking of the Bob Dylan song of the same title, you’ll recall it is also about change, and that Dylan’s full line is, “Don’t think twice, it’s all right.” Birbiglia’s characters find themselves using what they’ve learned from each other onstage, to improvise their adult lives. The movie ends with the possibility of new, and uncertain, beginnings for them all; but we’ve come to believe that these characters, written and performed with such poignancy, will be “all right”.
Selma Thompson: A Lifetime Member of The Writers Guild of America, East, she has written scripts for television, cable and studios. Her work has won a Cine Golden Eagle and been nominated for a Prism Award. She is also a script consultant, and teaches screenwriting and script analysis at NYU, where she was awarded the Excellence in Teaching Award. Educated at Princeton University and The University of London, she holds an MFA in Dramatic Writing from Tisch School of the Arts/NYU