Eddie Murphy. Will Ferrell. Bill Murray. The list of supremely talented improvisers who’ve made it big in Hollywood is extensive, but no one has ever made a movie that takes the audience inside the subculture of modern improv and investigates the often complicated relationships between its comedians. Mike Birbiglia has changed that with his sophomore directorial feature Don’t Think Twice, a love letter to the art form that also functions as an exploration of creativity, loyalty, and maturation.
Don't Think Twice
Writer/Director: Mike Birbiglia
Starring: Keegan-Michael Key, Gillian Jacobs, Mike Birbiglia
Birbiglia plays Miles, the founding member of an NYC-based improv troupe called The Commune that performs regularly in a local comedy club. He auditioned for Weekend Live (the film’s stand-in for Saturday Night Live) over a decade ago and didn’t get the job, but like all of the improvisers in The Commune, he’s still harboring dreams of getting hired there. The rest of the group includes a lanky and talented former student of Miles’ named Jack (Keegan-Michael Key); Jack’s girlfriend Sam (Gillian Jacobs), who serves as host when they’re all on stage; an aspiring illustrator named Allison (Kate Micucci); Bill (Chris Gethard), who’s hoping for the acceptance of his father; and Lindsay (Tami Sagher), whose wealthy parents make her the odd woman out when it comes to living the life of a struggling artist like the rest of her colleagues.
The film’s conflicts all dovetail around the same time: one of the group gets the big break they all wanted for themselves, Bill’s father suffers an accident, and the group’s beloved comedy club is slated to be shut down. All three events force them to snap into focus and figure out if continuing to do improv is a viable choice.
While most of the big moments belong to Key, Jacobs, and Birbiglia (who are all solid), Gethard sort of sneaks up on you by bringing a quiet desperation to his performance that reminded me a little of Paul Leiberstein (Tobey) on The Office. He spends a lot of the film time grappling with his dad’s accident, but Bill delivers what may be the most moving lines in the whole movie when he explains how, in the outside world, he’s treated like he doesn’t exist, but he knows he’s part of something bigger (The Commune) that offers him transcendent moments on stage. But without improv, he says, he’s kind of a loser. That’s just one example of the sort of human moments Birbiglia captures here, and it’s indicative of the way he cuts to the soul of the internal clash between art and commerce. The movie is about improv comedy, but that’s just a framework for its larger points; anyone with any creative passion should be able to easily relate to the successes and failures in this movie, and even to the twinges of jealousy that come when a friend in the same field gets an opportunity you desperately wanted.
Full of realism, humor, and brutal honesty, Don’t Think Twice isn’t afraid to tackle some of the hard truths about comedy, but it also isn’t a total downer; there’s a nice streak of optimism buried in all of this reality, and though Birbiglia is far from a flashy director, the authenticity and empathy with which he captures this previously unseen world is the movie’s best quality.