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DON’T THINK TWICE (2016) review

August 8, 2016

dont_think_twice

 

written by: Mike Birbiglia
produced by: Mike Birbiglia, Amanda Marshall and Ira Glass
directed by: Mike Birbiglia
rated: R (for language and some drug use)
runtime: 92 min.
U.S. release date:July 29, 2016 (limited)

 

For those of you aware of what “Yes and…” means, “Don’t Think Twice” is a film that will recall the highs and lows of performing improvisational comedy with a troupe of somewhat like-minded characters. Any given night can be great, filled with unimaginable cohesive creativity, while other nights can be absolutely abysmal, rife with an uncomfortable depletion of synchronicity.  This is an intuitive and impressive look at that world, written and directed by Mike Birbiglia, who also co-produces and stars as a member in the ensemble group the film follows. 

We’re introduced to The Commune, a group of comedy actors who have called a small Brooklyn theater home for years, but suddenly have to figure out what to do with themselves now that the theater is being turned into an Urban Outfitters.  This group could easily resemble improv acts like the Groundlings in LA or iO Theater (which spawned the Upright Citizens Brigade, which this group also resembles) in Chicago, but each member has aspirations to be picked up by Weekend Live (which obviously represents Saturday Night Live), knowing it’s the next level up from a lateral position that can feel like an eternity.

 

dontthinkCAST

 

The Commune consists of veteran and founding member, Miles (Birbiglia), who teaches improv and will often remind other members that he trained them, Jack (Keegan-Michael Key) the rock star of the group and his girlfriend, Samantha (Gillian Jacobs), shy and mousey Allison (Kate Micucci), the soft-spoken Bill (Chris Gerthard) and Lindsay (Tami Sagher) who doesn’t have to struggle like everyone else thanks to her wealthy family.  The group perform in weekly shows in a tiny theater in front of a loyal crowd, while working various day jobs during the week. They always open with one of them, usually Samantha, asking the audience, “Who’s had a hard day?”, which then becomes the material for their opening improv act. Just as they perform together, they also live together in a multi-loft building, ironically living out their group name.

As we spend more time with them, we learn that, although they’ve lived and worked together and made decisions for the benefit of the group, time has started to work them over. Restlessness and self-reflection has crept in on the complacency that’s made its home in the group for years. We get the idea that when  certain members have had success in the past, there was support from the group (outwardly at least), but now jealousy and envy has started to show and the realization that they’re not in their twenties anymore has set in. When a showboating Jack breaks the unity during a show and in turn is selected to audition for the sketch comedy series “Weekend Live” (purposely resembling “Saturday Night Live”) and such news finds The Commune responding in noticeably different ways while trying to remain supportive as they watch one of their own has walk through a door of success has become. This becomes even more challenging when Jack is hired as a cast member of the show, which finds the cracks in the group becoming more and more noticeable as the closing of their theater looms.

There have been films about struggling actors and stand-up comics in the past, but it’s a challenge to capture the high-wire intensity of performing improv night after night, where you always have to be loose and the pressure is to be on your game and in the zone and, yes, you can’t think twice – Birbiglia gets all that. He opens the film with matter-of-fact rules of improv from the great Del Close (the godfather of Chicago’s Second City back in the 60s) like “Fall, and figure out what to do on the way down.” What Birbiglia does so well right from the start is immerse viewers in this world of improv and the lives of these players. It really is its own subculture and Birbiglia (who has lived this and therefore knows this) is aware how important it is for us to be on stage with these characters and not in the audience watching them. He and cinematographer Joe Anderson do a fantastic job capturing that on film. Cameras swerve and circle around these actors, almost as if we’re watching an action movie, making improv kinetic and alive on film, both the soaring successes and the tragic nosedives. From the backstage exercises minutes before the shows, where actors must jettison any outside baggage to the exhilarating (and sweaty) moments where it feels like everything is working great, “Don’t Think Twice” is determined to include you and connect you with its characters.

 

dontthinktwicejacobs

 

“Don’t Think Twice” may be about improv players, but at its heart it’s about many things anyone can relate to. It’s a look at friendship and what it’s like to be a friend to someone whether or not you or they have success in life and how to still be that friend when they succeed and you do not. It’s a sobering film that also looks at what happens when you’re not that good at something you really enjoy, something you thought you were really good at and then facing what to do with yourself. For some of the characters there’s a relatable fear of failure and a paralyzing response to opportunity, which prevents them from advancing and growing. Much of this is seen once Jack is accepted at “Weekend Live”, which finds hostilities and weaknesses rise to the surface. Every character faces a challenge once Jack gets this new gig (even Jack) – Miles realizes he’s not where he thought he’d be in his career,  Lindsay relapses into pot and therapy, Allison continues her inability to complete her graphic novel and Bill is hit with tragedy when his father (Richard Kline) is hurt in a motorcycle accident, leaving him feeling his father will die believing his son to be a failure. This is behavior and feelings viewers can relate to, making the screenplay Birbiglia created a wholly authentic look at insecurity and anxiety that culminates in a thoroughly rewarding experience.

Birbiglia is gifted with six actors who work together convincingly and wonderfully and we really get to see them stretch once Key’s Jack gets his new gig and spends less time with both the group and Jacobs’ Samantha. Key and Jacobs definitely have the most multi-dimensional roles to work with and certainly stand out among their costars. Key has never shown more diversity than he has here and Jacobs (someone I can’t believe I haven’t noticed yet), with her exuberance and vulnerability, winds up being the film’s MVP . I appreciate how Birbiglia gives himself one of the more complicated roles yet he never upstages anyone. He brings more to the role then one would expect, making Miles less a pathetic jerk and more of a character we can empathize with. While the screenplay’s final act loses the overall subtlety the feature has in spades, it nevertheless still offers real characters with an emotional depth that is rich and rewarding.

 

dontthinktwicemike

 

Sometimes when I’m at a theater, watching a play or an improv act, I find myself thinking about the actors I’m watching. Not necessarily what they’re doing on the stage, although that’s how it starts, but I wind up wondering or imagining what they’re like off stage. What are their struggles? What are they passionate about? What kind of friends do they have? Are they good people or jerks? “Don’t Think Twice” reminded me of those questions and Birbiglia answers them with his own life experiences and thoughts on the matter.

“Don’t Think Twice” is the kind of low-budget indie I try to promote, especially to moviegoers who usually limit themselves to the major studio offerings. It’s a good film to branch away from all the sequels and reboots of the summer, delivering something different to discover and yet leaving you feeling like you spent time with familiar people with problems and challenges just like yourself and people you know.

 

dontthinktwice-press

 

RATING: ***1/2

 

 

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