Sometimes, you see a film at the exact right moment and it hits the exact right buttons so as to send you out on a cloud, convinced you’ve seen a great film, certain you’ve got a new favorite to add to your repertoire, and eager to evangelize about its virtues to the world.
Don’t Think Twice is such a film. I needed so warm and funny a film the day I saw it (more precisely, the specific time of that day), and based on my experiences of doing improv comedy in college, and my knowledge of what is to be a performing artist, it rang entirely true. It may not be a perfect film, and no future viewing is likely to benefit from the circumstances which made this one so uniquely rewarding, but it is an excellent film and one I can heartily recommend.
Note: I’ll add more pictures to this review at a later point. Time and logistics did not permit as of this writing.
The Commune is a NYC-based improv group, consisting of Miles (Mike Birbiglia), who works as an improv teacher, Jack (Keegan-Michael Key), who works as a bike messenger, Sam (Gillian Jacobs), who works as a waitress, Bill (Chris Gethard), who works in a supermarket, Lindsay (Tami Sagher), who is currently unemployed and living with her wealthy parents, and Allison (Kate Micucci), who has been working with Bill on a graphic novel for some years.
As the film begins, The Commune has been together for some years, and they’re facing the loss of their current venue, as well as the continual prospect of rising in the comedy field – particularly becoming a performer or writer for Weekend Live, an SNL-type comedy show. One evening, scouts from Weekend Live attend The Commune’s show, and Jack, to the chagrin of the others, takes the opportunity to show off his skills.
It pays off, however – Jack and Sam (who are a couple) are both invited to audition for Weekend Live, but while Jack nails his audition and is added to the show’s cast, Sam backs out moments before auditioning and makes an excuse about getting there too late. Miles, who was Jack’s first improv teacher and who is growing ever more despondent about his stagnating career, is deeply jealous. The others hope Jack will put in a good word for them with the showrunner on Weekend Live (or even get their writing on the show), but he is quickly discouraged from trying to do anything for his “funny friends.”
Jack’s work on the show keeps him from performing with The Commune, and when he does, the audience only wants to see him perform his Weekend Live shtick. Other tensions threaten the group: Bill’s father (Richard Masur) is critically injured in a motorcycle accident and left bedridden; Miles reconnects with an old crush, Liz (Maggie Kemper), and yearns to finally have a fulfilling relationship – before this, he has a short fling with one of his students, which ends with her leaving and saying “You’re like, 40” (to which he responds “I just turned 36!”); Lindsay resents her dependence on her family; and Sam, feeling adrift in her life, finally finds a niche in taking over Miles’ class…but at the same time, her relationship with Jack begins to suffer.
And of course, the loss of their cherished venue and the difficulties of securing a new one mean The Commune may have to throw in the towel whether they want to or not.
One piece of Hollywood lore is that Richard Donner, when making Superman in 1978, adopted “verisimilitude” as the production’s motto; he wanted the film to live up to its tagline, “You’ll believe a man can fly.” Don’t Think Twice‘s goals may be more earthbound, but verisimilitude should have been no less crucial a priority. If the viewer could not believe in The Commune as a well-established team, the film would have failed.
But it succeeds, and resoundingly so. I’ve recently established a new category in my personal film awards, one which many groups (the Academy notably excluded) feature: Best Ensemble. As of now, it’s easily my #1. Ensemble performing is at the very soul of the film, and you really do believe that these six people have long worked together, know each others rhythms, and moreover, truly care about one another. They’re a family, as much exemplified when they all go to visit Bill’s father in the hospital as when they perform onstage. And when their long-nurtured unity begins to crumble, it’s genuinely poignant.
Not only are the stars believable as a group, but they’re believable as improvisers. I was in an improv group in college, and while I was never quite great at it – too much of the writer in me, perhaps? – I had a lot of fun doing it, and the three cardinal rules of improv given at the beginning ring very true indeed:
- Say yes.
- It’s all about the group.
- Don’t think.
Saying “yes” is a tough rule to follow – it requires you to commit, sometimes to a dubious premise, in the cause of making the improv flow. But it leads directly into the second rule; making your own call about where the piece should go is selfish, especially if done with an ulterior motive. Which brings us to that third rule – don’t think. For me, it’s almost impossible not to (hence why I’m a critic), but the spotaneity that comes from an unrehearsed yet confident comic talent or talents is the purest joy of improv.
We see good and bad improv in Don’t Think Twice. We see The Commune improvise a skit about a bathroom located in a kitchen and draw huge laughs, and we see them struggle with uncooperative audiences and stand, deadly silent and lost. (Taking cues from the audience is a nerve-wracking crapshoot. Get a good one and you can make magic. Get a bad one and you’re likely to flail.) The film brings both joy and despair to life; Birbiglia (whom, I should note, also wrote and directed the film) clearly knows this world and knows how to bring it to life.
He also knows and perfectly evokes the character of the performing artist – both in its good and bad aspects. When Jack takes over the show, showboating for the Weekend Live scouts, Birbiglia simultaneously illustrates his eagerness to impress and the frustration of the rest of The Commune at his behavior. When Jack gets cast on Weekend Live, Miles’ resentment at being surpassed by his own pupil reflects the universal frustration felt at being passed over for any part (or job, or position, or…) And Jack’s inability to share his good fortune with the rest of The Commune, at least in any tangible sense, is likewise a frustration most of us have experienced, on one side of the bargain or the other.
Birbiglia’s script is in most respects a triumph. The characters are well-drawn and their struggles are relatable and realistic – one might reasonably dread another film about the problems of New York hipsters, but the film never idealizes or condescends to them. It portrays them honestly, and as such, is all the more affecting.
I might fairly note a handful of issues. The material surrounding Jack’s work on Weekend Live occasionally feels a touch predictable, and the appearance of a wizened, quasi-Mephistophelean producer (Seth Barrish) feels a touch hackneyed. And the coda seems unnecessary and almost (but, thankfully, not quite) hits the reset button, all the more annoyingly so as it follows the film’s most powerful scene.
Skip the next paragraph if you don’t want it spoiled.
The final show of The Commune is being performed. However, owing to a major falling out the night before (to sum it up, Jack used an old Commune skit on Weekend Live, Miles punched him, and Lindsay revealed she had been given a writing slot on the show and told off the others), Sam is the only one present. She asks the audience the standard opening question of the show: “Have any of you had a particularly bad day?” One of the audience replies that she clearly has, and she begins to improvise a scenario whereby she is stuck in a well, and mimics the other members of The Commune trying and failing to rescue her, all the while suggesting she is, in fact, all right. Jack arrives, and enters the scene, trying to improvise a scenario whereby he rescues her. She, however, denies it, finally saying to him, “Maybe I belong in the well.” She tells him, sadly, that what they had is now over. It’s an incredibly moving scene, and that the film follows it with a sequence set months later where everyone seems to have settled happily into their present lives almost, but not quite, knocks it out out of the **** range.
The cast is uniformly superb – as an ensemble, I consider them the best of the year to date. Birbiglia and Jacobs are arguably the leads, and both are excellent. Birbiglia perfectly communicates Miles’ tiresome self-absorption and mildly toxic self-pity, but keeps him human and rounded enough to where he never loses the viewer. Jacobs, arguably the dramatic MVP, has perhaps the greatest arc, as Sam comes into her own over the course of the film, and Jacobs keeps us compelled every step of the way. Her energy and likability arguably represent the heart of the film.
Key, to a mild degree, plays himself, but since he’s such a delightful performer I’m quite all right with that. He brings out Jack’s charisma, wit, and occasional obliviousness equally well – at one point he says he would have literally killed himself had he not gotten cast on Weekend Live, and Bill responds by asking if the rest of them should do so. Gethard, for his part, is a charming schlimazl, trying to earn the respect of his father, who is trying to pull him into the family business. Micucci and Sagher have the least-developed roles of the cast, but Micucci has a bright energy that’s very appealing, and Sagher is wholly believable in her resentment of her own privilege.
On a technical level, the film is perfectly fine, if unambitious. Birbiglia’s direction excels in managing the ensemble, but on a technical level is unobtrusive. Nothing wrong with that.
A film that spoke to me more than may to others (though the glowing reviews suggest otherwise), I recommend Don’t Think Twice to all for its wit and warmth, but especially to all who have improvised, as I have never seen that world so well embodied.