If you like improv comedy, you’ll probably love Don’t Think Twice. If you’re not an improv aficionado, odds are good that you’ll still like it; as the old adage goes, “the odds are good but the goods are odd.” The catch here is that you shouldn’t go in expecting a straight comedy, because there’s a bit more to it than that. Don’t Think is, at its rather sizable heart, a dramatic exploration of the pitfalls and psychological foibles inherent to the comedic mindset, a warts-and-all look at what it takes to follow an artistic dream that is remarkably unlikely to ever generate much income or garner the respect of one’s peers. What makes this film so uniquely effective is its capacity to humanize its subjects without fawning over them or glossing any gory details. And despite my admonition that audiences should expect more than just a quirky comedy, this is still a pretty damned funny piece of work.
The film’s premise is deceptively simple, as it follows the dissolution of a New York improv troupe when their low-rent theater is turned into an Urban Outfitters and one of their own is suddenly catapulted to instant stardom on a popular (?) TV show. The proxies are clear, with “Weekend Live” standing in for SNL (including a particularly menacing Lorne Michaels doppelgänger played by Seth Barrish) and “The Commune” representing known improv schools like The Groundlings, Second City or the Upright Citizens Brigade. So, while the conflicts and context are clear enough, it’s the honesty and depth with which the characters interact with each other and their environment that distinguish this film from the rank and file of New York-centric indie dram-coms.
What writer/director/actor Mike Birbiglia has achieved with Don’t Think Twice is a delicate balancing act, a film that is at times heartbreaking, at times hilarious, and yet still manages to engender the audience with a sincere sense of pathos for its subjects while never losing sight of their intrinsically flawed nature. Don’t Think’s greatest strength is its ability to present its well-rounded characters as being relatable, without losing sight of the fact that you probably shouldn’t like this group of lovable losers any more than they like themselves. By the end of the film, you can’t help but root for The Commune as a cohesive surrogate family, in spite of the problematic nature of the individuals involved. You know — like a regular family.
The cast is the real star here, and true to the core values of improv, Birbiglia’s unobtrusive camera assiduously avoids “showboating” (a cardinal sin in the improv ethos) and allows the characters he’s created to shine on their own merits. I never thought I’d utter these words, but there really are no weak performances in this film. Birbiglia is funny, self-effacing and warmly affective as the teacher and patriarch to his band of misfits, an almost-was whose self worth is derived from his pseudo-authority within the troupe and his proximal relationship to vastly more successful past students. Kate Micucci, Tami Sagher and Chris Gethard all support admirably, imbuing their respective characters with distinctive personalities through performance as much as scripting. But the real scene-stealers are Keegan-Michael Key as the showboating success story tapped for Weekend Live, and Gillian Jacobs as his girlfriend, also granted an audition but hobbled by her own fear of success. The duo’s easy chemistry and comedic timing belie the complexity of their strained relationship, which plays a bit like the first act of King Vidor’s 1928 Marion Davies vehicle Show People in the best possible way.
The humor may not always arise in the way you’d think, and the drama follows a relatively predictable course, but Don’t Think never falls short of defying expectations. Yes, the improv scenes are pretty funny, but far more laughs are derived from watching Birbiglia’s middle-aged man-child get called out on his bullshit by a woman his own age after years of seducing his twenty-something students with the same tired lines. What’s more surprising than the film’s often caustic comedy is its remarkably prescient explication of the pressures of creativity and ambition, especially within a group context.
Watching the characters react to their shifting circumstances and to getting passed over for advancement in favor of one of their own, I was struck by the notion that this is one of the most honest and authentic portrayals of the innate insecurity of the artistic ego yet committed to film; on that count it’s no 8 1/2, but what is? Don’t Think Twice is a film with something to say, and it’s more than engaging enough to earn a resounding “yes, and” from the audience. To paraphrase Waylon and Willie, “Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be comedians.” But if they’re at all interested in pursuing any artistic endeavor into adulthood, do take them to see Don’t. Rated R for language and some drug use.
Opens Friday at Fine Arts Theatre