Don't Think Twice follows the lives of six friends in their 30s as they try to make it together as a comedy improv troupe in New York City. The film's written and directed by Mike Birbiglia, whose previous film Sleepwalk with Me borrowed elements from his personal life and stand-up show to great effect. In Don't Think Twice, Birbiglia slides into a supporting role as Miles, alongside other talented names. Gillian Jacobs ("Girls," "Community") plays Samantha, who's dating Jack, played by Keegan-Michael Key ("Key & Peele"). There's also Allison (Kate Micucci), Lindsay (Tami Sagher) and Bill (Chris Gethard). Together they are "The Commune." Beyond their weekly performances, the group is bound by shared dreams, talents and cramped NYC apartments.
I'm a sucker for on-screen friendships, and this is the film's principal virtue. Friendship is for me the most comforting and inviting form of love, and yet it's often hard to capture with any real authenticity. When the characters in Don't Think Twice talk and play and interact, they do it with a depth that feels cultivated over many years. The members of The Commune haven't done what they're supposed to; that is, break off and make their own families, because goddammit, they're artists. It's inspiring to watch people at this stage in their career, where years of hard work will either pay off or not. But it's nerve-racking, too, because some of them won't make it.
The plot takes off with the arrival of some talent reps in the audience from "Weekend Live," the film's thinly veiled proximity to "Saturday Night Live." Jack can't help but do a little grandstanding for the reps with his perfected Obama impersonation during an unrelated sketch, and the ploy works. Both Jack and Samantha get auditions for "Weekend Live," and the rest are feeling left in the dust.
- Acting hard.
Don't Think Twice invokes the indie spirit of '90s classics like Reality Bites and the films of Richard Linklater, all of which are imbued with a perceived outside pressure to justify unconventional lifestyles. Birbiglia's film exists mostly in small spaces: a cramped apartment, tiny clubs and little theaters. The characters at times feel piled on top of one another like hamsters. It reminds us that in the cutthroat world of comedy, you have to carve out a place for yourself, and only the most talented and ambitious will make it.
This is a film about comedians, but it plays more like a family drama than a comedy. Most of the humor comes from overhearing the actors being funny, both in their improv show and in the moments before and after, when they're practicing voices to themselves in the corner or improvising for fun. In one scene, we see Samantha and Jack break into comedic banter when they're supposed to be making love. It's hard to tell which activity they find more enjoyable.
Audiences and critics universally love this film, and I think I know why. There's an honesty and urgency to the characters' plight that thoughtful viewers can't help recognize. The troupe has worked hard to get where they are and they want to be even more successful, together. But in its own sly way, Birbiglia's story invites his characters to recognize that in regard to what's most important in life, they've basically already made it. Bill says to his friends, "I don't want my dad to die thinking I was a failure." Samantha answers, "You're not a failure, Bill. You're in The Commune!" We should all be so lucky.
Don't Think Twice opens Fri., Aug. 26, at the Roxy.