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Catching Up on 2016: Don’t Think Twice

Don’t Think Twice, written and directed by Mike Birbiglia, tells the story of a New York-based improv group, The Commune.  At the beginning of the film, we see that the Commune is made up of a tight-knit group of friends.  They have a terrific camaraderie on-stage and they hang out together off-stage, watching TV together and traveling together.  But when one of their number is hired for Weekend Live, a big-time Saturday Night Live type program, the group fractures into competitiveness and envy.

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I haven’t seen comedian Mike Birbiglia’s first film, Sleepwalk with Me, though it’s been on my to-watch list for years.  Having now seen and enjoyed his second feature, Don’t Think Twice, I know I need to seek out Sleepwalk with Me without delay!  I knew of Mike Birbiglia from his stand-up comedy, and his (terrific) recurring role on Orange is the New Black.  That plus the stupendous cast Mr. Birbiglia assembled for Don’t Think Twice made this a film I was sure to track down in my end-of-2016 rush to see as many 2016 movies as I could before crafting my end-of-the-year “best-of” lists.

There is a lot of comedy in Don’t Think Twice, but this film isn’t really a comedy.  It’s an honest, painful-at-times look at the way that competition and envy can get in the way of art, and of human relationships.  Don’t Think Twice allows you to see the trainwreck-that-is-coming a mile away, which heightens its impact when it eventually arrives.  I spent much of the movie wishing the characters wouldn’t all behave the way they do.  I have great respect for how honest and human a story Mr. Birbiglia (who wrote and directed the film, in addition to starring in it) has created, how attentive he is to the way people talk and behave.

I love comedy and improv, and so I thoroughly enjoyed the behind-the-curtain glimpses Mr. Birbiglia’s film gives us to this world.  It’s thrilling getting to see the group perform on-stage, particularly at the beginning when we see them really on-fire, completely in-sync with one another.  It’s heartwarming to see the bonds of camaraderie formed by the members of this particular secret society, and heartbreaking to see how hard their lives are, having to work terrible low-level day-jobs and struggling to have enough money to live and to have a venue in which they can perform, all the while dreaming of fame and stardom on a show like Weekend Live.  

The cast is extraordinary.  Mr. Birbiglia kills it in the lead role, showing us all the ways in which his character Miles is an excellent improv artist but limited in other ways.  There’s something endearing about the way that Miles has crafted this little space for himself to be an “expert,” and the way he has, without regret (to this point) held on to living in a “college dorm” like lifestyle.  In many ways I applaud Miles’ focus on what he enjoys and what he’s good at, to hell with what the world thinks he should be doing as an adult.  On the other hand, I can also see the ways in which Miles is standing in his own way, holding on to a dream of his youth that is preventing him from living the rest of his life.  The film walks this balance carefully, allowing us to see both sides of Miles without judgment.  (Similarly, the audience is left to decide whether where Miles ends up at the end of the film is a big step forward or a sad step away from what he should be doing.)

The rest of the team of the Commune is amazing: Keegan-Michael Key (Key and Peele), Gillian Jacobs (Community), Kate Micucci (Garfunkel and Oates, and Gooch from Scrubs), Tami Sagher, and Chris Gethard are all phenomenal.  What a remarkable assemblage of comedic performers!  I loved watching this crew together.  The best scenes of the movie are the moments when all or most of this ensemble are together on-screen, playing off of one another and having fun together.  I love the way Mr. Birbiglia gave each actor the space to develop their character and to have fun playing with the rest of the team.

Mr. Birbiglia keeps the tone of the film light, which was the right way to go.  I enjoyed watching these characters even as the film veers, in its last act, into depressing territory.  There are a few rays of light at the end, thankfully, but ultimately Don’t Think Twice is a rather downbeat film, far more so than I’d expected.  I respect Mr. Birbiglia’s choice, and his interest in looking head-on into the realities of the life of people trying to break into the comedy/improv world, without trying to create a false Hollywood happy-ending.  But boy was I bummed out after watching this film!

For anyone interested in the world of comedy and improv, I suspect Don’t Think Twice will be a film you will quite enjoy.  I’m glad to have seen it, and I applaud the film that Mr. Birbiglia has created and the fine work done by his terrific cast.  Just don’t be expecting a film that is light-and-happy!  (I had to go watch a comedy TV show immediately afterwards…!)

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