It takes a very specific kind of person to work in a group. Not just work in one, but to fully commit to being part of that group and putting the well-being of others ahead of yourself. The world of showbiz , almost by necessity, runs completely counter to this kind of idea, which makes improv groups the strange stepchild of the comedy world. What happens when only one member of the team becomes a bigger success than the rest? What happens when one member never progresses at the same rate, or possibly at all, compared to the others? These are questions comedian Mike Birbiglia explores with great humor, depth, and authenticity in Don't Think Twice, one of the year's best films of any genre.
Following up on his terrific feature debut, Sleepwalk with Me, Birbiglia has assembled a Murderer's Row of comedic talent, and like any successful improv group they make one another look better throughout. After a brisk but insightful walk through the history of improv, we're introduced to The Commune, a Second City-esque improv group with a long tradition, full houses, and a knack for churning out future comedy stars. Birbiglia is Miles, founder of the group and the eldest member. Keegan-Michael Key is the ambitious Jack; Gillian Jacobs is Samantha, Jack's girlfriend and a former fan who considers her spot in The Commune a dream come true; Tami Sagher is Lindsay, a pot-smoking writer with parental issues; Chris Gethard is Bill, an understated member coping with his father's illness; and Kate Micucci as the shy, unassuming Allison. Individually they may not seem like much but together they routinely pack in the crowds, even though they aren't making much money at it and continue to work regular jobs to make ends meet.
One of those jobs is Miles' Improv 101 class in which he puts his expertise to good use nurturing the next generation of comedy stars, while also bedding a number of his young students. But it's also there where he sees the changing landscape of comedy, where improv is seen as merely a stepping stone to landing a gig on SNL or Weekend Live, the fictional sketch show everybody wants to end up on someday. When it's learned that a Weekend Live rep will be at an upcoming show, the bonds of unity essential to any improv group are stretched to the limit, especially by Jack who is warned that he always hogs the spotlight. But when one of them actually wins a spot on the show, those bonds aren't just tested, they are broken in a swirl of envy, sadness, and betrayal.
While we expect a group like this to nail the funny bits, it's the observational, occasionally dark dramatic points where the film truly surprises. We're so used to Birbiglia's light-hearted attitude that it's a punch in the gut when Miles sinks into a depression, faced with the possibility that he may not be as talented as he thinks. Another stand out as Gethard as Bill, who ponders what he'd be without improv in his life. Would he be just another loser with a dead-end job? And is he that anyway, just one with an affection for the stage? Everyone is terrific here, but it's Key and Jacobs who have remarkable chemistry in the scenes they share as Jack and Samantha, who are struggling with vastly opposed outlooks on fame.
Those moments of insight lend color to when the group is doing what they do best: working together to create a truly unique comedy experience for their audience. We see The Commune walking through the routines, such as asking the live crowd to offer up ideas for a subject, usually something awful that happened during the day. And like clockwork these wildly different personalities come together to create something better and funnier than the sum of its parts. These scenes have a totally different energy to them, shot by cinematographer Joe Anderson (who worked with Birbiglia on Sleepwalk with me) with a crisper, quick-cutting style to keep up with the back-and-forth riffing. Birbiglia shows tremendous progression as a filmmaker in meshing the different tones, but his greatest accomplishment may be that he doesn't treat improv with kid gloves, or portray it as too precious. There may be a spirit of love and cooperation that goes into the world of improv but showbiz is dog-eat-dog, and Don't Think Twice isn't afraid to put those harsh realities on center stage.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5