Film Review – Don’t Think Twice
Don't Think Twice
On the surface, Don’t Think Twice is a film about a troupe of improv players called The Commune and their struggles to not only survive but thrive in New York City. It would have been a great film right there, set in the back rooms and tiny stages of the last theaters in Brooklyn to be unironically dingy, because no one has time, inclination, or enough Fabuloso to clean it. What writer-director Mike Birbiglia adds to the tango of the improv craft – already a vibrant push-and-pull among the troupe members themselves and between them and the audience – is a vertical tug and release of career trajectories, rivalries, self-doubt, family, and the finite possibilities of adulthood. Altogether, it makes for a full-blooded study of performing and one of the most honest, most love-filled films of the year.
This structured flexibility of the improv players, all longtime friends and colleagues, is founded by their adherence to three rules: “say yes,” “it’s all about the group,” and “don’t think.” This balance of action and reaction, observance and feeling, depends on and reveals the trust these people have in each other. They have reached that familiarity with each other that even the slightest gesture or tic is a stimulus to react toward, each constructed scene building on each other’s strengths. Couple Jack (Keegan-Michael Key) and Samantha (Gillian Jacobs) live together and practice on each other, even at their most intimate moments. Lindsay (Tami Sagher) works out her upper-middle-class guilt, but also her stage persona, with her biweekly visits to a shrink. Allison (Kate Micucci) displays the pluck and energy onstage that she can’t seem to elicit out of her homegrown comic book which she has been writing for years. Bill (Chris Gethard) brings a simmering intensity to his work that evokes his anxieties with his father. Finally, Miles (Birbiglia) is the mentor and teacher of the group who is both consumed by and in heavy denial of the limits to his talents.
There is such a natural, easygoing flow among the six friends that the weaknesses or sore spots in their relationships become more evident as the plot moves along. “No showboating” is a warning doled out to anyone who displays early signs of hogging the spotlight, which is supposed to be communal and dynamic. Jack is the most common culprit of the audience’s attentions; he is also the most thirsty of the group, unloading his frustrations on Twitter and sharpening his personal brand in the grand hope of impressing the power players behind sketch-comedy show “Weekend Live!” An obvious stand-in for NBC’s Saturday-night stalwart, it is the oasis that each member secretly seeks, whether they vocalize it or not.
So comes the night when casting agents from the show appear in the audience to catch a show mere weeks before it closes for good, disrupting the delicate balance of the group as each tries to hold it together on the outside for the good of The Commune while inwardly gauging his or her chances at individual progress. For Miles, who has had multiple instances of almost making it big, his biggest fear is that “another one of my students gets my dream job.” In his mind, if he can teach it, why can’t people see him do it? To an extent, I see the desperation of Michael Dorsey in Tootsie, instructing acting students on committal to roles, even if it means disagreeing with the powers that be, and even though in his own auditions this approach rarely leads to success. The difference in Dustin Hoffman’s character and Mike Birbiglia’s character is that the latter never gets to try it in the dress, or in any other alternate context that may give him that magic spark. His schtick has grown rote, both on stage and with women, and Miles fails to see that he has coasted on fumes for too long. For other players like Allison and Bill, the chance to shine behind the scenes is enticing, as they develop a writers packet to submit to “Weekend Live!” Allison is the only one of the group who doesn’t have to worry about paying rent or finding another job immediately, but that isolates her from the group and her fear of being left behind is palpable. Ultimately, two members get asked to audition for the sketch show, an opportunity which each react to differently.
The closing of the improv theatre looms like a widening shadow over the six friends, as The Commune’s last show represents the finiteness of each members goals, or dreams, or life plans. For so long, the group could lean on each other through setbacks and rejections, poor audience receptions and low ticket sales. Now, as their individual dreams may be realized, their group dynamic is thrown into separate tangents. The troupe allowed for a sort of arrested development of adult life – marriage, kids, mortgages – while giving the actors consistent opportunities to hone their portrayals of adult characters. While each friend has stood committed to The Commune and its rules, the craving for the spotlight, for wanting to be the star varies among the six, depending on the need for the comfort and support of the group structure.
Some performers have “it,” and some don’t. What is “it:” financial success? Celebrity? Respect from peers? Which peers? Acclaim? Who determines the parameters of that acclaim? Is it more important to be happy with the situation you are in, or to constantly strive to better oneself? Birbiglia examines all these questions and the answers are at once sobering and heartfelt. Dreams at age 36 are different than fifteen years prior. Compromises are not automatically selling out or giving up. Change is inevitable, and happiness is dynamic.