What Don’t Think Twice does particularly well is to dramatize what it feels like when you’re already pretty well off and forced to take an honest look at yourself.
Mike Birbiglia’s Don’t Think Twice is a love letter to improvisational comedy, incorporating lessons about the history and philosophy of the form into a bittersweet comedy about a six-person troupe called “The Commune.” The name is appropriate since members of the group not only perform together but also live together and seem to spend most of their free time honing their comedic chops. They’re not exactly big time (they perform in a small theatre in Manhattan, where tickets are only $5), but they love what they do, and they love each other. What could possibly go wrong?
Well, they could lose their performance space, which happens almost as soon as the movie begins. Their unity could also be threatened by the ambition of one member, and that happens just about as quickly. Their collective loss of innocence following these events forces each member of The Commune to confront reality and decide what they truly want to make of their lives. They’re in their 20s and 30s, which may seem a bit old to be facing such basic questions, but it feels reasonable for people who have chosen to work in the arts rather than plug themselves into a more predictable career path.
One of the rules of improv, as outlined in the first moments of this film, is that the group is more important than the individual. In principle that’s a great philosophy, and I’m sure it makes for fine collective performances, but in show biz people generally move up one by one, so the temptation to showboat when scouts are in the audience is completely understandable. In this case, it’s Jack (Keegan-Michael Key, a.k.a. Key of Key and Peele) who breaks faith with his fellow troupe members and is rewarded by being cast on “Weekend Live,” which is Saturday Night Live in all but name.
I’m sure your mother told you to be happy when your friends succeed, but the truth is that if you and your friends work in the same competitive field, you’re more likely to react the way other members of The Commune do to Jack’s success. They’re jealous and bitter that he got the break instead of them, and console themselves by finding fault with Weekend Live (like they wouldn’t jump at the chance to join the cast were the offer to be made).
Each troupe member is a type, but not oppressively so, and the skillful deployment of easily recognizable types is a feature rather than a flaw in ensemble comedy. Samantha (Gillian Jacobs) is a pretty blonde girl and a gifted performer who lacks the desire and confidence to push her career forward. Allison (Kate Micucci) is a dark-haired indie girl who draws cartoons when she’s not performing, but never submits them for publication. Bill (Chris Gethard) is sweet guy with big glasses who has found his look but still seems to fade into the background. Lindsay (Tami Sagner) has real talent but is overlooked by the others because she’s not model-slim. Miles (Birbiglia) teaches improv and resents the fact that, although he’s been working at it longer than any of the other troupe members, he doesn’t seem to be getting anywhere.
Needless to say, these are the problems of people who don’t have any real problems—none of them are starving or abused or ill, and they have each other and the joy of their work and the appreciation of their audience to sustain them. Probably most of the audience for this film will be in a similar situation, in which fairly comfortable survival is assured so you can concern yourself with self-actualization. What Don’t Think Twice does particularly well is to dramatize what it feels like when you’re already pretty well off and forced to take an honest look at yourself and how you fit into the world. It’s also honest about its performers in a way that is rare in backstagers: the members of The Commune are sincere and hard-working, and sometimes their performances are pretty funny, but if they all gave it up tomorrow, Western Civilization would not be appreciably poorer.
If you are interested in improv, you’ll probably love this movie three times as much as I did (and I like it a lot). Even if you’re not, many of the issues the characters confront are common to all kinds of work spaces (offices and research labs come immediately to mind) and social situations, so you don’t have to be a 20-something striving to get on television to recognize something of yourself in these characters and their struggles. | Sarah Boslaugh