DON’T THINK TWICE Review
Director: Mike Birbiglia
There’s no denying comedy’s importance in the human life, either in enjoying or performing. Portraying said effect is an art form of its own, and a difficult one at that. Improviser-turned-stand up comedian-turned-writer-turned-not-so-surprisingly talented filmmaker Mike Birbiglia has thus far explored two modes of comedy performance in film; stand up in his debut feature SLEEPWALK WITH ME, and improvisational comedy in his newest film DON’T THINK TWICE. The film doubles as an observation on the art and subculture of modern improv, and even more impressively as a somewhat classical character study. The film becomes a little confused when examining improv’s inner machinations, trying to avoid being cheeky or alienating, but Birbiglia has still lined the film with great subtext, with personality, thematic truths, and earnest emotions that hit hard anyway. DON’T THINK TWICE is a shining example of original, character-driven cinema, holding up a mirror for the audience in intensely specific angles, but offering room for a hug right after presenting some ugly truths.
This film’s portrayal of ignoring Saturday Night Live’s musical guests is brutally accurate
Despite feeling new to cinema, the tale of DON’T THINK TWICE is universal not only to the comedy world, but in an anthropological sense for anyone with artistic ambitions. “The Commune,” an improv troupe of six misfits in New York, having achieved cult status, faces intense personal changes. The showboat of the group, Jack (Keegan Michael Key), and perhaps most passionate, “improv nerd” Sam (Gillian Jacobs), have been selected to audition for “Weekend Live,” the film’s very obvious SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE equivalent. The remaining members grow alienated and bitter, as each Commune member begins to wonder what their worth is as a team, and even darker so, as an individual with creative hopes and ambitions.
Yes, the film can be and often is funny, but DON’T THINK TWICE stands out for its private moments off stage and its meta touches on stage. The comedy world portrayed here starts out a little awkwardly, with a blatant SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE analogy (with its own Lorne Michaels parody), and even some inside baseball mishandling. The film strives to portray the deep, artistic merits of comedy, and specifically improvisational comedy, which it does well once its odd universe is established; this, however, takes some time. Even the live performances might feel off, blurring the line of written and improvised. But it seems to be more portrayal than showcase of skill, as it all pays off in the long run, connecting to the human, non-performance modes of these characters. Birbiglia cleverly sets up the dichotomy of livelihoods for us to notice. Commune shows start with a question for inspiration to the audience: “Has anyone here had a particularly bad day?” Their shows are therapy, not only for the viewers, but for the performers as well.
I guess it’s preferred to “yes, and-” in group therapy sessions, too
Birbiglia’s film says beautiful things about comedy, while using a portal into human stress and misery as a catalyst. The darker themes and tones on display here are inspired by the likes of Woody Allen and John Cassavetes (with prominent references to Gena Rowlands). Birbiglia’s style has evolved since SLEEPWALK WITH ME, as he captures and creates neurotic and candid living with frank, observational sincerity. The performances meditate on deep thoughts, spoken and explored, or perhaps repressed and displaced. More specific details are rolled out in carefully crafted montages, taking advantage of production design, deliberate cinematography (with great compositions and use of wandering steadicam), editing, and subtle actions/inactions. Worlds are created and inhabited, making every subsequent decision that much more effective.
For an initial non-improviser, Gillian Jacobs does fantastic work
Considering DON’T THINK TWICE deliberately emulates the likes of THE BIG CHILL and other 70s ensemble fare, the film lives and dies on its performances, as well as its script. Early on, there’s an unusual rhythm at play. The dialogue has a stilted feeling similar to an aforementioned film from the 70s that needed some Additional Dialogue Recording tweaks in post-production. It calls attention to itself a little, but the screenplay does such a great job of weaving its textual theses throughout its candid demeanor that the two tones eventually even out after initially clashing.
Every member of the cast shines. Keegan Michael Key and Gillian Jacobs play a couple, with varied amounts of success and subsequent stresses. They devote so much heart and emotion to their positions that it no longer feels like acting after a certain point, at least in the more intimate sequences. Kate Micucci and Tami Sagher aren’t given full arcs as much as scenes and moments that don’t really get to blossom naturally, yet they add up nicely on screen. They’re both so good because of their awareness as performers, making them feel full on impact. Chris Gethard is given granted the opportunity to be emotionally raw. Fans of his work outside of film understand that he’s an artist fully in touch with his emotions, so seeing him take on themes of depression and regret in such an active manner is thrilling. Mike Birbiglia himself is allowed a deliciously antagonistic role, which is almost more of a subplot than a leading position. He plays a truly self-centered character, using his trademark wit with nasty jabs and dark character decisions that solidify the imperfections of DON’T THINK TWICE’s reality. It rains lemons upon these characters; we get to see them react, struggle, and ultimately make lemonade.
Trust me, “The Commune” is nothing as far as bad improv group names go
It’s exciting that an independent dramatic comedy of this caliber can still be unique amid a sea of feckless Apatow clones. Mike Birbiglia proves to be the real deal when it comes to being a writer, director, and performer. Perhaps the film is a little too nostalgic in style, but the subject matter is definitely prescient when it comes to taking a closer look at what it means to chase dreams. His fellow cast members similarly brought their A-games. This is a film to exalt as a successful character piece, but also as an honest piece exploring the art of comedy and improv. There are harsh truths at the core of DON’T THINK TWICE, and it’s a heart-breaking thrill to experience and acknowledge them in a cinematic context.