As an active high school theatre participant, I was excited to learn my junior year that our drama circle would be subject to improv training, a spontaneous, script-less style of theatre that heavily utilizes comedy, games & audience participation. After engaging in improv throughout the next two years, I did undertake a round of training at ComedySportz in Milwaukee, after which I found the time for a few scattered improv performances as time went by. Unfortunately, around 2003 my local music involvement began to take over in a big way, at which point I ceased my association with this art form, essentially pounding the final nail into the coffin that was my theatrical career. However, I continued to remain a silent fan of improv as the years went by, having been to my share of Saturday night ComedySportz performances as well as watching as friends formed their own improv groups (including the Milwaukee-based Mojo Dojo Comedy, Tall Boys Improv and the late Homegrown Electric Circus, among others).
Comedian Mike Birbiglia has enjoyed a highly successful career via his one-man show/album/book/movie Sleepwalk with Me, along with a slew of guest spots on television & film, and with Don’t Think Twice he again handles most of the behind-the-scenes duties while also playing one of the main roles. The premise is simple-a New York City-based improv troupe (seemingly modeled on The Groundlings or Upright Citizens Brigade) known as The Commune has served as a breeding ground for comedians to transition into more successful career opportunities, one of the highest of which involves being cast on the Saturday Night Live-modeled Weekend Live. The six members of The Commune all come from different backgrounds, and seem to have different life goals as well-Birbiglia’s washed-up troupe leader Miles harbors dreams of one day having another stab at Weekend Live following a failed audition over a decade earlier, Keegan-Michael Key’s Jack possesses a tendency to showboat onstage & a ravenous desire to make Weekend Live as well, Tami Sagher’s Lindsay seems content to continue drifting through life thanks to wealthy, supportive parents, while Kate Micucci’s Allison & Chris Gethard’s Bill enjoy being members of The Commune but equally enjoy collaborating on outside creative projects together. Meanwhile, Gillian Jacobs as Sam, undoubtedly the most talented member of the group (and Jack’s girlfriend), must figure out where her future lies, especially when she and Jack are offered the chance to tryout for the prestigious Weekend Live, thus causing a semi-rift in the group and setting the tone for the rest of the film.
Don’t Think Twice is probably a better effort from Birbiglia than the slightly unfocused Sleepwalk with Me, though it does still suffer from elements that may cause audience interest to wander from time to time. Every cast member has moments where they don’t fully commit to their character, and Birbiglia’s tendency to load the film with scenes in which characters talk over one another does display an honest effort at portraying realism but will usually result in people like myself straining to understand what any one person is saying at times. The realism also takes shape during the many scenes where people such as Key and Jacobs prepare their impersonations for their Weekend Live auditions, as well as the many actual moments when The Commune takes the stage, but said moments usually only produce groan-worthy laughs and the aforementioned preparation scenes by Key & Jacobs do get fairly annoying.
That all being said, if one were to step back and look at Don’t Think Twice as a whole, one will see a fantastic look at growing up, a movie that differs itself from coming-of-age films that focus on younger generations and instead profiles grown adults who still need to find their paths through life. The movie honestly contains some truly heartfelt moments, ones which do deliver in the emotion department, accentuated by a beautiful score courtesy of Roger Neill. Key and Jacobs, despite their few shortcomings at times, in particular do a fine job, and the rest of the cast help balance out the story extremely well. A subplot involving Bill’s dying father does tend to teeter between compelling and useless, but eventually feels right at home within Don’t Think Twice and even ends up producing some unexpected humor that helps elevate what is ultimately a very sad arc. Even a cameo by Ben Stiller manages to eke out a few chuckles thanks to Stiller’s genuinely honest demeanor-it oddly may be one of his best performances in years.
Don’t Think Twice is far from perfect, but does serve to showcase Birbiglia’s potential for even better work as well as the up-and-coming talent from a diverse cast. It’s clear that, with each successive film, Birbiglia is learning more about how to tighten up his writing, as well as how to bring about excellent performances from his actors, even if it’s not always on point here. As someone who continues to struggle with wondering what to do with my career, I deeply connected with the story, recognizing similar feelings as were produced by Richard Linklater’s ambitious, excellent Boyhood. I don’t need to think twice about how much I enjoyed this film, and know that, much like a promising improv troupe, his next effort will be even better.