Don’t Think Twice
USA, Feature Narrative
New York Premiere
Written and Directed by Mike Birbiglia
By Shani R. Friedman
Improvisational comedy and storytelling are enjoying boom times right now both in New York and nationally, thanks to the Upright Citizens Brigade, The Moth, The Magnet Theatre and the PIT. Out of that scene comes Birbiglia, whose current one man-show, Thank God for Jokes, is running off Broadway. This is his second foray behind the camera; his 2012 debut, Sleepwalk With Me, which was based on his one-man show, was a 2012 Sundance Film Festival winner.
His second feature, a blend of expertly-crafted comedy and pathos, is about what happens to a group of 30-something friends and their long-running, successful improv troupe, The Commune, when they lose their theater to rising rents (Trump has bought the building and is turning into an Urban Outfitters) and when the majors come calling but not for all of them. Birbiglia has gathered together a cast of very familiar faces mixed with some actors who have virtually no screen experience. The inspiration for the story, according to the press materials, came from Birbiglia’s wife, who observed that his improv friends were much more supportive of each other than his comedy friends and that some of the improvisers had become millionaires while others were barely covering the rent on an overcrowded Bushwick hovel.
The sextet is comprised of Miles, Samantha, Jack, Allison, Bill and Lindsay. Miles (Birbiglia) is the Commune’s founder and he teaches improve classes. The big time has eluded him but he’s seen his students make the leap. When he isn’t teaching Miles scores with his students. His patented patter when he brings them back to his bedroom – “ It’s not big but neither am I” amuses the young women. Samantha (Gillian Jacobs) and Jack (Keegan-Michael Key) are romantically involved and the de facto “parents” of the group. Jack, who has the most hustle of all of them, wants more than what the group can offer him and is eager to get on television. Allison (Kate Micucci) is a cartoonist but puts all of her passion and energy into improv. Bill (Chris Gethard) has cornered the market on crap jobs: he pushes hummus samples at a store while trying to prove to his dad that he’s not a broke loser. Lindsay (Tami Sagher) is from a privileged background, doesn’t have to work for a living and goes home to the place she shares with her parents.
The group is shaken as they struggle to find a new theatre. There’s a particularly poignant moment when, at their last show in the space, the wooden totem bear that each had tapped on their way out to the stage before every show is gone, but they touch the empty spot one by one all the same. The bigger fracturing happens when Weekend Live, a fictional stand-in for Saturday Night Live, offers a chance to audition for the show but only to two of them. That The Commune can’t go on forever is inevitable, of course – when was the last time you saw a group of 60-something improvisers- but it’s not any less heartbreaking to see the dissolution of friendships and a second family after a decade.
With six characters, it’s challenging to give equally strong storylines to everyone, but the story is designed to serve some of the characters more than the others. Key and Jacobs are very believable as partners both on and off stage and they bring a lot of warmth and ease to their roles. Birbiglia opted to play the least likable member (in the press notes he admits “There’s something about the bitterness of the character that I wore in a natural way) He makes for a winning jerk but is not unredeemable. Although they get less screen time, it’s great to see Micucci – whose work in Garfunkel and Oates and countless shows like The Big Bang Theory and Raising Hope I’ve been a fan of – and Sagher (in her first major film role) whose work I’ve followed in New York- get laughs in this cornucopia of talent. And I have to admit I have a soft spot for Chris Gethard, another local storyteller and improv performer whose public access show I love. He brings a sweetness to Bill, the character who arguably goes through the most struggles without losing his innate decency.
Don’t Think Twice is a funny, thoughtful meditation on growing up and accepting the often pain reality that while your friends may break out, you could get left behind. As Bill puts it when they’re cleaning out their old theatre, “your 20s are about hope. Yours 30s are you realizing how dumb it was to have hope.” The movie isn’t as cynical as that line would suggest and is raising the questions that many of us ask ourselves at some point in our professional lives. How is success defined and do you have to amass a vast fortune or have the kind of name recognition that gets you in anywhere or have you made it if you love what you’re doing and are good at it?
Don’t Think Twice opens in theatres July 22nd.