Film Review: Don't Think Twice

Writer/actor/director Mike Birbiglia nails it with this delightful, funny and emotionally resonating dramedy about a tight-knit troupe of six Brooklyn improv performers aiming for the big time until a big break threatens their bond.
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Don’t Think Twice makes only one reference to the Dylan classic (a lovely instrumental cover of the song is heard over end credits), because the title refers to a rule of improv comedy as presented in a brief prologue and homage to the ’50s, mostly Chicago-based pioneers instrumental in pushing the art into the 21st century (Del Close, Paul Sills, Mort Sahl, among the many). Their rules, a primer really, include (roughly) going along with your performance partner in whatever he or she creates and just building on that; not showboating or showing off oneself, as the performance is about the group, not an individual; and most important, reacting immediately to what’s given (that “Don’t think,” as improv art is about living in the moment. Improv, in fact, makes an apt metaphor for the film. It suggests that avoiding overthinking may serve us well in the nonstop parade of life’s personal and professional challenges.

Hardly just a philosophical treatise, Don’t Think Twice is a smart, engaging, hugely entertaining ride that rewards indie fans appreciative of solid comedy and fine craftsmanship. And as a wonderful showcase of remarkable talent, it also rewards those onscreen.

Propelling the story are the reverberations when one member of a loyal comedy team (“I’ve got your back,” is their pre-performance pledge and ritual) gets the big break they all covet. The six 30-something comics whose lives will fray comprise The Commune, a troupe that toils for peanuts and love of the art in a modest New York space.

In no order of importance, they are Miles (Mike Birbiglia), an improv teacher in his “day” job who also earns the occasional opportunity of bedding one of his younger students; Allison (Kate Micucci), an illustrator who’s been working for years on her graphic novel; Jack (Keegan-Michael Key), a bike messenger; Bill (Chris Gerhard), a small cog in the food trade; Samantha (Gillian Jacobs), Jack’s current significant other; and Lindsay (Tami Sagher), a wealthy pothead on unemployment compensation whom Miles resents for enjoying such “public” support and having gotten everything on a “silver platter.”

Opportunities and crises arise, most notably the precipitating event that has one of the group tapped, after scouts show up at a Commune show, for an audition as writer/performer on “Weekend Live,” a fictional but spot-on spin on “Saturday Night Live.” The coup prompts other troupe members to create “writing packets,” samples really, to submit to the show now that there’s an insider from their ranks.

Additionally, The Commune, together for over a decade, is about to lose their shoebox performance space to a developer with condo dreams and Bill’s father has a near-fatal motorcycle accident. On a brighter front, relationship-ready Miles reconnects significantly with high-school pal Liz (Maggie Kemper), only to learn she may be pregnant after a fling with a young Brazilian.

Along the way through ups and downs, viewers are treated to the troupe’s wonderful skits, instantly launched after they entreat the audience to share a particularly “hard day.” One, memorable also for its poignancy and real drama, comes near the film’s end and involves being stranded at the bottom of a well.

It’s hard to imagine that performances could have been better. The film is further enriched by some twists and suspense and, most importantly, by its underlying truths regarding human nature and the raw hope, jealousy, rage, duplicity, forgiveness and love lurking there. As a side dish, some unexpected cameos from the world of comedy add some star power.

Roger Neill’s original music is the perfect, subtle coating for all that unfolds. This feel-good film, not always pretty, rises above the usual cynicism that infiltrates many a showbiz drama.

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