Movie Review: ‘Don’t Think Twice’
Starring:Mike Birbiglia, Keegan Michael Key, and Gillian Jacobs
Plot: Members of a New York based improv troupe struggle to cope when one of their members leaves to be on a popular television show.
Back in the day, it was indie garage bands that were traded for “cool” credit. The more obscure they were, the cooler you were. Nowadays, it feels like comedians are the new “cool” commodity. It must be the rising popularity in podcasts, which have literally put the comedian in people’s living rooms, not just cracking jokes but talking about life in general. They have essentially transformed themselves into the most relatable of all the artists, and as a result, the zeitgeist of being a comedian has gained a lot of interest. Not only has a number of “rock doc” style documentaries popped up (like Harmontown, the movies of Doug Benson, and Viceland’s Flophouse just to name a few), but the life of comedians is starting to bleed more into topics of feature films.
Professional comedian and amateur sleepwalker, Mike Birbiglia, is one such comedian, who has made the jump to cinema to tell behind the scenes stories of what it is like to be a struggling comedian. His autobiographical debut, Sleepwalk With Me, was a hidden gem, chronicling his struggles to break into the business while also suffering from some pretty severe sleepwalking. It got so bad that one night he jumped through a second story window. Seriously. With Don’t Think Twice, Birbiglia crafts a spiritual sequel about the other end of the comedian’s career. He casts himself as Miles, an improv guru who founded “The Commune,” a New York based improv group. He spends his days training the next generation, his nights performing on stage, and the quiet times between them arguing about the artistic merit and integrity of Weekend Live, a thinly disguised version of Saturday Night Live, who rejected Miles earlier in his career.
Birbiglia plays Miles like a passive puppy. He has the same off-beat, nice guy charm that he has on stage during his actual shows, but he subverts that passiveness as he repeats obviously rehearsed lines about how he was so close and ultimately too unique to be accepted on Weekend Live. Ironically, everything about his life seems rehearsed. When he brings ladies back to the sloppy dorm-like room he is too old to still be living in, he gives each the same self-deprecating spiel he hopes humanizes the fact that he lives like a 20-something post-grad.
In contrast, the few improv routines that make it to screen are fantastic. Improv, as a technique, is almost more zeitgeisty than straight stand-up. The title refers to the troupe’s motto to jump at every and any impulse because as they continue to tinker in the moment, they’ll often find comedic brilliance. Despite being teamed up with some truly great comedic performers, including Kate Miccuci and Chris Gethard, these scenes aren’t necessarily even funny (decently clever though), but the speed and fury with which they jump from bit to bit is impressive. Watching something be created seems like a more charming aspect of improv than delivering the funniest joke possible in that moment. Birbiglia admitted that none of the improv scenes are actually improvised, which sort of sucks, but the cast is still able to imbue those scenes with the same sense of spontaneity that you would get from the real thing.
Trouble starts when two of his brightest pupils, played by Keegan Michal Key (as in, …& Peele) and Community’s Gillian Jacobs (ugh, Britta’s in this?), get the chance to audition for Weekend Live. Key and Jacobs (Jacobs, in particular) serve as the emotional center of the movie, even though you might assume it is Birbiglia. They are romantically involved and are set to audition on the same day for Weekend Live. Except only one of them gets the gig. The stress of the job not only threatens their relationship but the relationships of the whole group. Birbiglia handles it with care as not to vilify any of his characters out-right. Jealousy for a friend’s success, especially in the same industry you are struggling in, is a hard emotion to nail down without making someone look like a big unappreciative baby. Thankfully, everyone makes it out of this remaining pretty damn relatable.
Lastly, stand-up Chris Gethard, who I am not very familiar with except for some appearances on Broad City, does some of the best acting in the whole movie. He is really the only character that has a really solid B-story, and it involves some pretty heavy material and a complicated, understated performance.