Don’t Think Twice and all the images you see in this review are owned by The Film Arcade
Directed by Mike Birbiglia
I always like to see comedians (especially of the Stand Up variety) take a chance behind the camera, especially considering how many really great works that transition has produced. Bobcat Goldthwaite’s been making angry and brilliant films since the nineties with people only noticing in the past decade or so how great thy are, and Louis CK made such an impact with his television series that it’s become the template for comedian focused shows since then (*cough* Real Rob, Maron, Lopez *cough*). Now it’s time for Mike Birbiglia to take another stab at it, and while I didn’t see his first film Sleepwalk with Me, I’ve heard very good things about it and can only hope he’s improved since. Does this insight into the world of improv comedy turn out to be the sleeper hit of the year, or is it destined be yet another victim of the Sophomore Slump? Let’s find out!!
The movie follow the six members of a New York City improv group known as The Commune; some of whom have been there since it began in the late nineties, others came later, and some are rather fresh to the scene. Miles (Mike Birbiglia) is the presumptive leader of the group as he has seniority and also teaches an improv class where a lot of the members came from, including Jack and Samantha (Keegan-Michael Key and Gillian Jacobs) who seem to be the rising stars of the group. You’ve also got the other old timer Bill (Chris Gethard), the rich girl who wants to be taken seriously Lindsay (Tami Sagher) and the one who’s TOTALLY writing a novel and will finish it eventually Allison (Kate Micucci) to round out the crew. Everything seems to be going fine and they’ve built up their own little life around the show they do a couple of times a week at this small theater, but then life as to throw a curve ball and things change once they find out the theater is shutting down. Not only that, Jack and Samantha managed to secure auditions for NOT SNL (Weekend Live) which puts even further strain on their friendship; especially with Miles who tried out years ago but couldn’t make the cut. Will these comedians be able to survive the changes that are being thrust upon them? Can Jack and Samantha make that transition to the big leagues without burning out or losing their friends in the process? Why can’t they ALL be winners!?
This movie, on almost all of its individual aspects, is fantastically executed and has incredibly memorable turns by some very talented comedians. The problem though is that I’m not all that into the genre this movie is in (stressful and awkward “comedies”), so while it’s an above average and damn near excellent example of what it wants to be (I still rank World’s Great’s Dad a bit higher), I just couldn’t get into it as much as they wanted me to or as much as someone who likes these kind of movies will. It’s an endurance test (more so than even some horror movies) that possibly hit a bit too close to home for me, so I ended up squirming my wall through it while also appreciating it’s brilliance and even enjoying its less squirmy moments. Seriously, if Mike Birbiglia managed to focus his immense talents on a movie that’s supposed to be ENJOYED, then he’d be the next big name in comedy film making. Then again, maybe he’s perfect right where he is and I’m just not meant to be an ardent fan of his work.
So what does this movie get right? Well… quite a lot actually. The acting in particular is a highlight, and while there’s a few side characters here and there that don’t do much (I thought a cameo here was pretty weak, but I guess that’s the joke… maybe), our key players are fun to watch and convincingly pull off the darker moments when they’re at their lowest points and are in total despair. Keegan-Michael Key as the scene stealing super talent is dangerously close to typecasting considering how good he is at it, as is Mike Birbiglia as the sad sack with a heart of gold and has about equal screen time with Keegan. The one who I connected with the most though was Chris Gethard as the guy who’s well aware that he’s probably never gonna make it big if he hasn’t already but doesn’t want to do anything else, and his plight is incredibly sympathetic; even without the shoehorned in dying father subplot. Then again, maybe it was because he had the one line in here that filled me with the most existential terror which is “Your twenties are all about hope, and then your thirties are all about realizing how dumb it was to hope”. Shit, that only gives me six more years to get this whole “film critic” thing to work!
Gillian Jacobs is strong in her role as Keegan’s girlfriend who’s probably not as talented as him and it creates a rift in their relationship that is one of the emotional cruxes of this movie. I wasn’t a fan of her resolution but then that goes back to me not being a big fan of this type of movie, and for the record it’s executed very well. Kati Micucci (who looks like Kristen Schaal 2.0) and Tami Sagher (who I kept thinking was Artemis Pebdani) are pushed to the background a bit more than the rest of them (and if we’re being frank, so is Chris Gethard even if I did connect with him the most here), but they also turn in very strong performances and I did like the endings of their arcs which made me wish they had been a bit more in this. When they’re all together doing their improv shows you can tell that there’s a lot of chemistry there, and while I didn’t find their act all that impressive (I honestly prefer the refined and edited version we get from something like Whose Line Is It Anyway), I was impressed with them as characters and how well they were able to express the emotional range required of them for these roles.
The strong cast is backed up by really great writing, and a strong overarching theme that deals with ambition, hesitation, growing up, being jealous of others success, and how things can get even harder if you actually do manage to reach your dreams. It’s hard to watch at points, especially once the rest of the crew start getting desperate and more or less begging for jobs from Keegan once he gets on Weekend Live who himself is fighting to not get fired right away. Are the characters then likable if they’re easily pushed into envy at their own friend’s success? There are points where they cross the line and act completely inappropriately or try to be as hurtful as possible, but the movie takes the time to show us everyone’s point of view which makes it hard to not sympathize even when they are acting like a bunch of craven losers. Look, I’m not what you would call a STRUGGLING ARTIST, but even with my ambitions to become a film critic, I know that I’ve had these feelings sometimes and the movie touched a nerve on that; especially with how well they depict they fear of time marching forward and leaving you behind. I can’t say I ENJOYED sitting through that as the fear of my own mortality was threatening to give me a heart attack, but it handles those themes in a very compelling manner, and it’s probably good to stare into the depths of the abyss every once in a while; if nothing else than to keep you motivated and help stave off apathy.
Now this movie isn’t perfect, and I’m not just saying that because it was an endurance test for me. While the overall arc itself (one friend makes it, the others try and fail) is strong, the movie has way too many subplots going on and very few of them feel satisfying or have well-crafted arcs. The biggest one for me was Mike Birbiglia’s subplot where a friend of his from high school (I think it was Maggie Kemper, but I could be wrong about that) who DID end up becoming a modestly successful performer comes back into town… for seemingly no reason that I can recall, and the relationship that forms between them. There’s not enough time spent with these two for the relationship to make sense, and the way it ends makes even less so. It’s basically the relationship in Saturday Night Fever if it went with the Hollywood ending instead of the good one they had, if that makes any sense. Other subplots like Chris Gethard’s father on his deathbed and Kate Micucci’s graphic novel similarly don’t have much going for them, but they are less of a focus here compared to Mike Birbiglia, so it’s not as bad when those just kinda wrap themselves up at the end.
Despite its shaky subplots and my own personal baggage with the movie’s themes, there’s no denying that this is a lovingly crafted feature from someone who’s starting to prove himself as a great filmmaker in the making. Can he transition outside of independent cinema and be the next big name in Hollywood? Well if his character in this movie is in any way autobiographical, it doesn’t seem like something he’d be all that interested in doing or even all that confident he’d be able to adapt to that kind of environment. Still, if this movie taught us anything, it’s that dreams aren’t always what we expect them to be and that it’s okay to find your place in the world instead of try to rule it. I wish him luck on whatever he has planned next (just wait and in two weeks he’ll be signed to a Hangover reboot or something) and I encourage you to go out and see this movie once it hits home release. It’s not getting a wide release anyway and it can be a HUGE emotional drain, so it’s probably best to check it out on VOD or Netflix rather than put in the effort to find a theater that’s actually playing this. Now excuse me while I go eat a salad and hit the gym!!
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