Don’t Think Twice (2016)

Written & Directed by Mike Birbiglia

Improvisational comedy is not Mike Birbiglia’s specialty. Rather Birbiglia, the writer/director of Don’t Think Twice, his second feature behind the camera, exceeds by deftly delivering hilarious stories, sometimes real, sometimes made up, and sometimes a mix of both. His debut film, Sleepwalk with Me, is based in large part to his real life struggle with sleepwalking. Birbiglia was one of the first stand up comedians I was introduced to during my time in college in which I frequented Go Bananas Comedy Club in Cincinnati, Ohio, seeing anyone and everyone who could give me a laugh. Birbiglia never made it big like Aziz Ansari, Louis C.K. or others may have, but he certainly has a good and loyal following, including yours truly. So when his second film was announced, I was excited, though like all of his work, I wasn’t quite sure what it would be about. I was sure I would love it. I did.

The Commune is a group of friends in New York City who perform improv comedy in a small theater on a regular basis. Each of them brings something new to the table, but all dream of making it big by securing a cast spot on Weekend Live (think Saturday Night Live). Miles (Birbiglia) is the veteran of the group who helped found it, and teaches improv classes in his spare time. Jack (Keegan-Michael Key) is arguably the star, while Sam (Gillian Jacobs), Allison (Kate Micucci), Lindsay (Tami Sagher), and Bill (Chris Gethard) round out the ambitious cast. As their theater owner warns them that their time in that space is coming to a close, one of the cast members finds their way onto Weekend Live, while the remaining members begin to wonder if their time will ever come at all, or whether they should just move on from their dream of comedy as a career.

Like many who have probably reviewed this film, I am going to comment most specifically on the three “rules of improv” put forth by Sam, the “frontman” of the improv troupe, at the beginning of the film. This is not because it’s the easy way out (though it totally is), but rather because while Birbiglia’s film may travel down conventional paths, it does so in surprisingly touching and poignant ways, which inspires me to comment directly upon these conventions in how they affected my viewing experience and contributed to my feeling that Birbiglia’s film, Don’t Think Twice, is a step up from his entertaining debut, Sleepwalk with Me.

So to get started, rule #1: Say yes. You will quickly realize that this is not as much a film about improv comedy as it is about life. Like I said, conventional. But as we spend time with these characters, we learn to love them and pull for them, particularly Miles, Sam and Jack, the three main characters. Each has a journey throughout the quick and efficient 92 minute run time, each with very different results. Life evolves, goals change, relationships shift and ultimately rolling with the punches is what keeps us afloat more often than not. Saying yes is not a blanket rule, but staying positive and building upon things is a much better way to spend your time than being negative and tearing things down instead.

Moving on, rule #2: It’s all about the group. The opposite end of this one is that it’s not all about yourself, which proves to be a sticking point between a few of the characters at different points throughout the film. Of course, this is a perfect point to praise the cast of this film for their extremely authentic, as well as extremely funny, performances. Each character is fleshed out enough to have their own strengths and weaknesses, affording the cast to dig into their roles quite well, perform wonderfully together, and each deliver poignant portraits of these characters. Quite frankly, the cast and their respective characters carry the film.

Last, and certainly not least, rule #3: Don’t think. The titular rule in the film, “Don’t think” is essential in improv comedy where you have to be on your toes to deal with everything your fellow cast members throw at you. Life is no different. You must stay on your toes for everything life will throw your way. Not thinking at all may not be advised in life, but if you stay close to the first two rules, and are comfortable with who you are and what your goals are in life, rule #3 becomes much easier to follow. Don’t think, just be yourself, regardless of outside pressures.

Don’t Think Twice exceeds in living up to these three rules and transforms them, along with the characters, throughout this touchingly emotional film. Birbiglia shows yet again that he is a more than capable storyteller, whose life experiences are full of nuggets worthy of both comedy and drama. Everything here may not go smoothly, or fall perfectly into place from a cinematic standpoint, but Birbiglia’s ability to squeeze surprisingly affecting story arcs within the framework of a funny comedy filled with comedy veterans giving hilarious and poignant performances makes Don’t Think Twice a success, despite its flaws.

***1/2 – Great

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