Improv Takes Center Stage In Warmhearted "Don't Think Twice"

The Second City. The Groundlings. The Upright Citizens Brigade. The names of these improv comedy troupes aren’t just ingrained into the popular culture because they’re stepping stones to bigger things. They’re ideals of comedic altruism in their own rights, an idea that comedian Mike Birbiglia justly champions in his second feature film “Don’t Think Twice.” But the stand-up comic turned writer-director also knows firsthand that improv can be a fickle beast – and that nothing gold can stay – making for a film that’s at once as magnanimous and volatile as the art form it’s celebrating.

The subject matter here isn’t a backdrop. It’s the movie’s blood, pulsing through every character and joke and observation. The effect is both endearing and a little frustrating, coming at the cost of a center (there’s no true lead character) and laughs. There are laughs, but “Don’t Think Twice” is much more concerned with what goes into getting those laughs.

Set in Chicago, the story revolves around a six-person improv troupe known as The Commune. They’re in danger of losing two things they hold dear. Firstly, their theater, where troupe member Samantha (Gillian Jacobs, “Community”) begins each show with a kindly “Has anybody had a particularly hard day?” This question directed at the audience will determine the basis of that particular performance, no matter how curt or dull or dopey the answer. As the question is repeated throughout the film, it sneakily turns from throwaway to mission statement to rallying cry, underlining both the give-and-take relationship between comedian and audience, and the humanity in Birbiglia’s screenplay. Whether the characters know it or not, these seven words are vital to their livelihoods – and they’re on the verge of having no place to say them.

Secondly, the group’s identity is in flux. Member Jack (Keegan-Michael Key, “Keanu”) has been cast on fictional “Saturday Night Live” clone “Weekend Live.” This sextet that’s based their mercurial comedy careers on selflessness and saying “yes” to everything (one of the main tenets of improv) comes face to face with selfishness and doubt and the success they can taste but can’t have. It flips their world upside down. They know they’re supposed to be happy for Jack, but they feel like they’ve shown up single to a friend’s dream wedding.

Birbiglia plays troupe member Miles, the group’s elder who cannot comprehend that “Weekend Live” would want to hire the student (Jack) but not the teacher (himself). It’s a predictably warm, knowing performance, in line with his fictional but lightly autobiographical turn in 2012 indie gem “Sleepwalk With Me” (which he also wrote and directed). Miles’ observation of a “Weekend Live” sketch as “Skillful – not funny, but skillful” is so loaded with truth and wisdom and puzzlement that it’s easy to miss how funny it is – a perfect encapsulation of Birbiglia himself.

Then there’s Kate Micucci as Allison, Tami Sagher as Lindsay, and Chris Gethard as Bill, each bringing a unique personality to the outfit’s dynamic, both onstage and off.

Although Key is a shrewd choice to play the group’s least likable member – the actor himself is eminently likable – it’s Gethard who runs away with every scene he’s in. As his character struggles with his father’s failing health and his own rocky career trajectory, he allows the group to wring humor from his misfortune. Sometimes he even participates. His generosity is the antithesis to Jack’s understandable selfishness, and Gethard’s low-key-ness is the perfect reset button for when jealousy gets the best of the group.

Unsurprisingly, it’s the movie’s smallest moments that mean the most, from Samantha and Jack (a live-in couple) practicing impressions at home to the troupe’s ritualistic pre-show routine. Gillian Jacobs in particular makes the most of these moments, delivering an utterly committed performance that begs for more substantial film roles. She shines in both the ostensibly unscripted improv scenes and the moments that focus on her star-crossed relationship with Jack. It’s her Samantha that comes the closest to emerging as a lead. Alas, it’s not to be, with the piece stubbornly belonging to no one in particular.

Like the once-ubiquitous fade-out in pop music, “Don’t Think Twice” necessarily peters out in its third act, departing with an anticlimactic “8 months later” epilogue. The characters deserve better, but maybe that’s Birbiglia’s point. Their underdog status virtually requires a fizzle rather than a flashbang because neither of the presented crossroads promises much more than more of the same. The effect is only satisfying in its dissatisfaction, leaving us to wish we’d gotten to know this group of weirdos a little bit better – and had a few more laughs along the way.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Good)

Release Date: July 22, 2016 (Limited)
Studio: The Film Arcade
Director: Mike Birbiglia
Screenwriter: Mike Birbiglia
Starring: Gillian Jacobs, Keegan-Michael Key, Mike Birbiglia, Chris Gethard, Kate Micucci, Tami Sagher
MPAA Rating: R (for language and some drug use)