Improvisational comedy is all about finding character, story, and humor in the heat of an unknown moment – but is that not life, too? As Del Close (a founding improv mind) once said, “Fall, and then figure out what to do on the way down.” That wisdom resonates through Mike Birbiglia’s sophomore effort, Don’t Think Twice, as he explores the perils of personal passion through middling “stagnation.” Life is passion, but passion is also pain, so, by association, doesn’t that mean life also equals pain? Birbiglia doesn’t shy away from the glamourless hardships of navigating New York City’s competitive artistry talent pool, which will be a wake up call that some people might not want to hear…but need.
The film follows an improv collective called The Commune, as they deal with the looming reality of their club’s closure. Over the course of a few weeks, some members find success, while others accept reality. Jack (Keegan Michael-Key) is the lucky one who gets hired by Weekend Live (our SNL), leaving his girlfriend Samantha (Gillian Jacobs), Miles (Mike Birbiglia), Allison (Kate Micucci), Bill (Chris Gethard) and Lindsay (Tami Sagher) with a host of unanswered questions. Their friendship has always been a source of support, but life’s unique complications will test their dynamic until the bitter end.
Don’t Think Twice packs double the raw honesty of Sleepwalk With Me, especially when exploring NYC’s creative circles. Birbiglia doesn’t buy into flowery, more romanticized depictions of apartments and bohemian lifestyles. This isn’t Friends, where quirky goofballs live in a too-good-to-be-true loft. Miles’ room has a pipe running through it, which hopeful companions have to duck under, while roommates cram on a living room couch that can only fit two people eating pizza. These are the grinders, who sacrifice everything for dreams of improvisational stardom, but you feel the anguish and discomfort and pain that comes along with the chase. Emotion benefits from relatable location scouting, as dirty, cramped spaces ensure for local authenticity.
Diving deeper, definitions of success continually reshape the landscape of Don’t Think Twice. Birbiglia opens on a happy comedy troupe, through an allure of pleasure, but reality sets in rather quickly. Whether it be Bill’s remark about being a failure (Commune member by night, grocery store worker by day), or Samantha’s wishes to remain “in the well,” a comparison she makes when confessing how Weekend Live would be her worst nightmare.
As struggling comedians, Weekend Live is their big leagues, but Jack’s idea of “making it” is “selling out” to another, and for the rest, jealousy becomes a two-headed beast. The question of friendship versus competition envelopes like a validating haze once Jack gets casted on Weekend Live, as Miles (and others) begs him to leverage his own, well-earned position for favors. A rift starts, and characters struggle to separate WHO, from WHAT they’re jealous of. And, most importantly, WHY they’re jealous.
Then, of course, Birbiglia opens the largest wounds when questions of finality arise. There’s a sobering, poignant line about your 20s being when you chase dreams, and your 30s being when your realize how dumb those dreams were. Dark? Yes. Realistic and cripplingly profound? Abso-fucking-lutely.
And that’s supposed to be scary. Normality isn’t saved by one big Hollywood monologue that turns your life around. The best theater actor in high school is probably only pretty mediocre outside of Anywhere, USA, and some people can’t handle that. Don’t Think Twice works as encouragement to follow dreams, but doubly so to embrace changing directions. Miles, a 36-year-old guy who was “inches” form Weekend Live, desperately clings to a lifestyle meant for early 20-somethings, because the dream still burns bright. No one wants to extinguish that fire, but there’s a point people ignore where if it was going to happen, it would have happened already. That’s not giving up, that’s not admitting defeat, it’s just moving on – which is more than OK.
Yet, that’s what hurts the most – not the failure, not the falling, but the willful acknowledgement that time has run out. As a twenty-something writer living in NYC, stuck trying to balance my own day job with nightly passions, I see the rookie talents who Samantha teaches improv, and can’t help but think about possibly facing my own professional mortality someday. Coming from a place of fear and reflection, Birbiglia’s soulful addressing-of-age story is not an easy one to tell – but he does, with a darkly comedic backbone. Comedy, in itself, is tragedy – no?
Birbiglia’s hilarity needs no introduction, so it’s no surprise that Don’t Think Twice brings together a tremendous ensemble of equal talents. There’s no shining star, because each actor understands their role, and (assumedly) channels their own personal climb towards stardom. Each performance feels like an inner confrontation, as emotions boil over. We cringe while Lindsay asks (begs) a current Weekend Live star to follow an Instagram account for her neighbor’s dog (that she runs), and laugh as two lovers workshop jokes during sex. There’s no separation between life and passion, and our actors so beautifully articulate the dedication needed to hone one’s craft – but that’s still not always enough. Certain gut-wrenching scenes, like when Miles berates another member for winning a Weekend Live writing gig, really tell a tale of humility and unshakable human disappointment. Feelings that pass when laughs remind of friendship’s true bonds.
A good film makes you feel something, but a better film makes you see yourself on screen. Don’t Think Twice is one of those rare cinematic mirrors that replicates our own fears, experiences and daily banter in a way that hits far closer to home than you’d expect – doubly so if you’re a struggling creative type. It’s beautiful and heartfelt. Comforting and painful. A raw, real, honest blurring of daydreams, realities, and finding a common ground in between no matter how fucking hard that hurts. And, even with all that said, it’s STILL pretty damn funny.