***1/2 out of ****
(for strong language and some drug use)
Released: July 22, 2016
Runtime: 92 minutes
Director: Mike Birbiglia
Starring: Mike Birbiglia, Gillian Jacobs, Keegan-Michael Key, Kate Micucci, Chris Gethard, Tami Sagher
If your goal is to be a cast member on Saturday Night Live someday, then this will be your life.
Sure, there’ll be laughs along the way, but by virtue of the fact that there’s only so many slots for that show to fill, your dream stands a strong chance of never coming true. Don’t Think Twice, the second film from writer/director Mike Birbiglia (Sleepwalk With Me), is about a small-time New York improv troupe that’s forced to come to terms with that reality – especially when one of their members actually makes it to the fictionalized SNL archetype “Weekend Live”, while the rest don’t.
For as much as this unexpectedly affecting movie is about that intriguing premise, Don’t Think Twice is really a deeper look at the psychology – and psychosis – of live comic performers, whether they be stand-ups, sketch performers, or even live theatre actors. The world of improv is sort of all of those things rolled up into one. Birbiglia’s view is an insider’s perspective, but it’s neither a tribute to nor an indictment of these very singular types. Rather, Don’t Think Twice is an affectionate take on some very insecure people that’s as sympathetic as it is merciless.
Comics of all varieties are funny people (by definition), but their individual styles can vary widely. If they share one thing in common, however, it’s probably that – more than anything – comedy is a coping mechanism. It’s an exorcising of demons as much as it is the thrill of earning a laugh. Yet when those two activities are combined, it can result in a raw, volatile life, particularly when your closest friends and support group are also your most direct rivals.
Birbiglia’s script and direction insightfully captures every nuance of this conflicted, anxiety-inducing niche culture, and with palpable veracity. It’s an environment that breeds both warm camaraderie and fierce competition. The line between the two is razor thin, and the need for validation can lead to awkward desperation. When someone succeeds at a level you’ve only dreamed, it’s amazing how the nitpick critiques of that person’s talents quickly emerge from those left behind.
Yet there’s also a level of understanding that these needy, quasi-narcissistic fragile egos find in each other that can’t be recognized (or appreciated) by others. It’s the kind that not only finds true joy in a cutting wit, but actually receives genuine catharsis from the most inappropriate and offensively-timed gallows humor.
Birbiglia leads an impressive ensemble from behind the camera as well as in front of it (playing the founder of The Commune improv team). Keegan-Michael Key (of Key and Peele) displays the broad comic talents he’s famous for and then adds some impressive dramatic chops to the mix, plus Chris Gethard (someone entirely unknown to me) is a real find who layers delicate pathos into his comedy.
Yet the standout here is Gillian Jacobs (the neurotic blonde of Community fame). She not only shines despite never having done improv before (she truly fooled me), but she also becomes the story’s heart and soul – nay, it’s ideal. There’s a lot more to her talent than I’d imagined, and Jacobs’ performance here is the best kind of calling card for future, challenging roles that demand a wide range.
At its melancholy core, Don’t Think Twice is about the emptiness and regret that comes from wrapping up your entire identity in something that requires the applause of others, and on an ever-increasing scale. It can get really ugly when someone close to you receives the affirmation you covet (while you don’t), compounding a state of never-ending existential crisis.
But ultimately, life isn’t about what you do; it’s about why you do it. The film’s climactic grace notes tenderly bring home that poignant truth, encouraging us (and rightly so) to break its titular rule of improv.