Actors, improvisers, comics or any kind of artist, really, shouldn’t miss Mike Birbiglia’s “Don’t Think Twice.” The comic-turned-actor/filmmaker journeys behind the curtain for his second film to put an honest lens on the inherent friction that occurs when artists need each other to succeed but also have their own dreams, egos and pursuits.
The film focuses on a modestly successful New York-based improv troupe called the Commune, whose supportive, team-first nature (as per the rules of improv) gets challenged when they learn their venue is closing and one of them has gotten his big break — a spot on the cast of “Saturday Night Live” equivalent “Weekend Live.”
In the group are Miles (Birbiglia), who at 36 has managed to make being in a troupe and teaching improv into an unglamorous but stable career; Sam (Gillian Jacobs) and Jack (Keegan-Michael Key), the groups biggest talents who are in a relationship together; Allison (Kate Miccuci), an aspiring graphic novelist; Bill (Chris Gethard), another longtime performer who just wants to prove he’s accomplished something; and Lindsay (Tami Sagher), who is unemployed, unmotivated and still lives with her wealthy parents.
All these carefully crafted characters “get by” despite their mutual struggles, until Jack gets plucked by “Weekend Live,” and the group dynamics get tested in the toughest way possible. There’s resentment, group members who hope to use Jack to land a writing job on the show and a lot of grappling with reality and what each of them really wants out of life.
Although “Don’t Think Twice” is steeped in the world of improv, and Birbiglia thematically asserts early on in the film that the rules of improv (“say yes,” “don’t think”) are echoed off stage as much as on it, his approach to writing and directing is, ironically, much more carefully planned and controlled.
You can see a lot of the mechanisms at work in Birbiglia’s writing play out on screen. The scenes in the film, on average, are probably a minute long each. Many are 30-second snapshots. So each scene, and in many cases each shot, have a specific objective in the arch of the story. This structure inherently reveals all of Birbiglia’s cards, which is a big risk, but the film’s premise is so effectively rooted in truth that it works.
Critical to this payoff are the performances. When an actor is given so many short scenes with clear objectives, there’s not a lot of wiggle room in the performance. You have to take what you’re given and bring the additional layers of complexity; you must be a believable person within somewhat rigid confines.
Jacobs does this the best, and will undoubtedly get her own big break soon unless she prefers the climate on planet indie. Her character has a somewhat atypical personal journey and Jacobs brings a lot range to it. We also see the full scope of what Key is capable of, namely that he doesn’t have to be over-the-top and hilarious as he is on “Key and Peele” to be successful.
To be fair, acting isn’t the lone ingredient that makes this tight ship of a 92-minute film work as a movie we can all identify with. Birbiglia makes a lot of it happen behind the camera too. Balancing planning and precision with rawness and authenticity is not easy and for the most part, he manages to do it. He’s most successful when he counteracts the tight writing composition with more relaxed shot composition. There’s mostly hand-held camera work in the film, and a nice touch is how the improvisation scenes are filmed from the stage, not the audience. This keeps things loose and also keeps us closer to the characters, the heart of the movie.
Heart is one thing Birbiglia isn’t missing, but don’t worry — there’s plenty to laugh at too. Lots of Birbiglia’s great sneak-attack humor can be found throughout. Yet the comedy isn’t the takeaway here so much as the carefully honed theme of how we chase our dreams while wrestling with our realities, something so universal that it would be hard to find someone who doesn’t get it. It’s such a true message that even when Birbiglia gets heavy-handed, it’s hard not to appreciate the nobility of his purpose.
Don’t Think Twice
Written and Directed by Mike Birbiglia
Starring: Mike Birbiglia, Gillian Jacobs, Keegan-Michael Key