‘Don’t Think Twice’ funny and enjoyable, comes frustratingly close to greatness

Don’t Think Twice

FilmScene — opens Friday, Aug. 26 at 4 p.m.

The Commune watches 'Weekend Live' -- still from Mike Birbiglia's 'Don't Think Twice'
The Commune watches ‘Weekend Live’ — still from Mike Birbiglia’s ‘Don’t Think Twice’

Comedian-turned-director Mike Birbiglia’s second film, Don’t Think Twice, opens this Friday, Aug. 26, at FilmScene. Birbiglia’s first film, Sleepwalk With Me, was a deeply personal adaptation of his own memoir of the same title. Birbiglia’s new film, Don’t Think Twice, is no less personal, despite being a fictional film. Where Sleepwalk With Me humorously laid bare skeletons in its director’s closet, Don’t Think Twice exposes Birbiglia’s abiding love for improvisational comedy. Whether or not you’re a theatre geek, a comedy nerd or a cinephile, Don’t Think Twice is an entertaining, funny, well-made film about the joys and frustrations of people trying to make a living doing something they love in a society gauging success and passion in terms of money and fame.

Don’t Think Twice begins with a brief lesson on the history of improv. The modern theatrical form of improvisational comedy got its start with Viola Spolin who developed improvisational games as a skill to aid immigrant children adapt to life in Chicago’s inner city. The film’s introduction also lays out the rules of improv: Good improvisers never say, “No” — instead, they always add to scenes by saying, “Yes, and …” This positive affirmation allows for ideas to blossom and everyone to contribute to the scene. Don’t Think Twice also pays homage to Del Close, a giant of Chicago comedy who popularized the form as a member of Chicago’s Second City troupe, and who served as a mentor and teacher for John Belushi, Tina Fey and Bill Murray, among many other notable students.

With the history and the rules of the game established, the film quickly shifts to a scene with a member of an improv team, the Commune, asking the audience in a tiny New York City theatre if anyone would be willing to share details of their really bad day. A brief, poorly lit shot of the audience follows and then the camera promptly returns to the performers who are bathed in the warm glow of stage lighting, making them appear almost impossibly real and vivacious. The Commune takes the audience suggestion, apartment hunting, and acts out a hilariously awful apartment showing replete with a toilet in the kitchen and an infestation of orphan children. In that moment, Don’t Think Twice provides filmgoers with the rarely seen visual perspective from the stage looking out at an audience made up of vague, slightly-shadowy, people, also acknowledging the film’s focus on the performers. Don’t Think Twice offers a unique, intimate peek behind the scenes of a DIY theatre company and into the lives of dedicated improv performers.

The Commune consists of Jack (Keegan-Michael Key), Miles (Mike Birbiglia), Sam (Gillian Jacobs), Bill (Chris Gethard), Allison (Kate Micucci) and Lindsay (Tami Sagher). Each comedian adds a special element to the Commune’s performances, and, as the film progresses, it becomes clear that the shows are better when all members of the group are present. Unfortunately for the team, there is a clear rift developing in the Commune from the beginning of the film. Miles, the team’s founder and oldest member, is becoming resentful of Jack, whose undeniable talent is beginning to outshine his teammates. Everyone’s goal is to get an audition for (leading to a job on) Weekend Live — an SNL-esque sketch comedy show that members of the Commune obsess over. While everyone would like to see the others succeed, the members of the Commune all exhibit varying degrees of narcissism and petty jealousy, and, ultimately, Jack’s successful Weekend Live audition is not the group’s success — despite Jack’s assurances to the contrary.

The cast of Don’t Think Twice is an impressive mix of some of the most talented improvisers working in the comedy scene today. Birbiglia cut his improvisational teeth while in college as a member of the Georgetown Players. Key studied theatre at Penn State and was a member of several Michigan-based improv troupes. Jacobs, Gethard, Micucci and Sagher are four of the most in-demand comedic actors, producers and writers with credits ranging from NBC’s Community and 30 Rock to The Big Bang Theory and This American Life. The most thrilling moments of the film come when the members of the Commune are playing off of one another on stage. Improv is a source of power for the Commune that the group taps into not only on-stage but also as a coping tool to help deal with tragedy and frustration over an inability to define success on their own terms. One of the film’s best moments takes place on a car ride home from the hospital when the Commune uses humor to provide some needed levity while offering support to a grieving friend. The abundance of improvisation throughout Don’t Think Twice makes the film seem more genuine than something more scripted, its characters seem more real, almost as if the Commune might actually be performing later tonight in a theatre just down the street.

Gillian Jacobs and Keegan-Michael Key -- still from Mike Birbiglia's 'Don't Think Twice'
Gillian Jacobs and Keegan-Michael Key — still from Mike Birbiglia’s ‘Don’t Think Twice’

Interestingly, the only place where Don’t Think Twice falls short is tied to its great casting choices. Though Birbiglia and Key were bound to be the focus of much of the film, the other members of the Commune are equally interesting and at times frustratingly underserved by the film’s plot. While Gillian Jacobs and Chris Gethard get decent screen time in Don’t Think Twice, unfortunately their characters seem to exist only to drive the plot as Key’s girlfriend and the film’s locus of tragedy, respectively. On the other hand, Kate Micucci and particularly Tami Sagher are given the chance to create interesting, complex characters who are never allowed to grow and whose character development only seems to serve as filler for a couple of music-heavy montages. All of the cast shines during the improv sequences but Micucci’s quiet cartoonist and Sagher’s self-aware child of privilege warrant much more screen time than they’re offered. This is not to say Don’t Think Twice isn’t a really enjoyable, well made film, because it is. The problem is, Don’t Think Twice comes frustratingly close to greatness but never quite achieves it — because, despite an abundance of brilliant improvisation, the film’s more formulaic elements result in far too many clichéd rom-com nos and not nearly enough original cinematic yes, ands….

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