This is a story about the lower echelons of show biz, about a six-person improv comedy troupe that may be peaking at the exact moment it may be breaking up. This is a story about teamwork and yet jealousy, about big aspirations and yet cold realities, about comedy and yet how damn hard it is to achieve liftoff.
“Don’t Think Twice” is one of the better movies you’ll see about what it takes to establish a viable career in show business, far from the land of fables such as “A Star is Born.”
Writer-director-actor Mike Birbiglia made a previous film about standup comedy, “Sleepwalk With Me” (2012), which I didn’t see but wish I had. In this new film, he again draws on his own struggles and insider viewpoint about comedy to craft a smart though unsparing tale about a longtime New York improv troupe.
The Commune performs in its tiny theater without a script, working from audience input —“Who’s had a really bad day?” is the evening’s usual opening prompt for ideas — and building on each other’s inspirations to create instant skits that are quite funny. Besides audiences pay so little for entry no one is going to ask for his money back even if the group doesn’t “kill” every time.
Everyone in the troupe maintains crappy day jobs in order to do what they do for a few hours each week with the exception of Tami Sagher’s Lindsay, whose Upper West Side parents’ money shield her at least from this downside to show biz.
Which doesn’t prevent her from hanging out at the troupe’s communal digs (giving added meaning to the troupe’s name, The Commune) that is little more than a glorified college dorm.
The group’s only couple, Keegan-Michael Key’s Jack and Gillian Jacobs’ Samantha, make a cozy, loving pair only she like everyone else questions Jack’s penchant for showboating every now and then in the midst of skits that are meant to be collaborative efforts.
Birbiglia himself plays Miles, a genuinely talented performer and teacher who nonetheless suffers from the annoying and embarrassing fact that several comics he has taught have gone on to television fame and glory on “Weekend Live” (read “SNL”) while he languishes off-off-off Broadway.
Kate Micucci’s Allison is a talented illustrator but prefers to channel her artistry into a group endeavor rather than risk a solo career. Chris Gethard’s Bill tends naturally toward depression, meaning his career choice has certainly enriched this tendency, egged on by resigned head shakes by his concerned father (Richard Masur).
Then comes the startling news the building housing the group’s tiny theater has been sold (to that rapacious developer Donald Trump apparently). They have only a few days to find a new theater where the rent will continue to allow those low entry fees.
At the same time a “Weekend Live” talent scout drops by unannounced. As (bad) luck would have it, Bill misses the show on account of his dad’s hospitalization and Jack again goes off on one of his self-serving tangents.
Exacerbating tensions among the group is the fact that only two cast members get a nod to audition for “Weekend Live.”
The film’s producers have asked critics not to reveal the character who gets cast on the TV show. I’m not sure why since this occurs fairly early in the movie and isn’t a major surprise in any event. But honoring that request, I’ll say only that the success of a single member does little for group morale.
A shot of the other five comics watching a former cohort winning national laughs on TV, their faces glum with misery and despair, says it all. More crucially, the loss of their venue and valued colleague forces everyone to confront the inevitable question: how good am I really?
Everyone had such hopes in their mid-20s. But now they’re in their mid-30s. Fooling oneself is no longer an option. Miles even gets an unexpected hook-up with an old high school classmate, Liz (Maggie Kemper), but her reaction to his “college dorm room” lifestyle reminds him that adult responsibilities loom.
The film contains painfully real scenes that underscore the desperation that descends on the remaining five. Allison watches and re-watches a TV clip of Kate Hepburn, trying to mimic her voice and Yankee accent in order to add another impression to her repertoire.
The group all but gravels before a celebrity who drops by the show in an all-too-obvious desire to ingratiate themselves. The writers pair off to create material for their former colleague to slip to “Weekend Live’s” imperious producer.
Meanwhile, that supposedly successful colleague is feeling a rookie’s pressure to perform at the consistent level that came easy in Lower Manhattan but can wilt in the pressure cooker of a weekly national TV show.
“Don’t Think Twice” (a title taken from the familiar Bob Dylan lyric) neither sugarcoats its characters despair nor overdramatizes it. The movie acknowledges the role luck plays in things, almost as large as talent, yet seeks no bad guys in this cutthroat business. Chips fall where they may.
The screenplay developed out of writing, rewriting and improvs with the cast plus several public shows where the actors did indeed perform as The Commune. Six improv scenes were filmed with a live audience at the Lynn Redgrave Theater, where d.p. Joe Anderson accomplishes the task of making you see the the show from the actors’ perspective as opposed to the audience’s.
Birbiglia is smart enough not to throw cold water on the passionate dream of these six individuals but rather to see that sometimes one must move on. It’s not a matter of giving up but rather a realization that like improv comedy things don’t always work out.
Opens: July 22, 2016 New York, July 29 L.A. (The Film Archade)
Production company: Cold Iron Pictures
Cast: Keegan-Michael Key, Gillian Jacobs, Mike Birbiglia, Kate Micucci, Tami Sagher, Chris Gethard
Director-screenwriter: Mike Birbiglia
Producers: Mike Birbiglia, Ira Glass, Miranda Bailey, Amanda Marshall
Executive producers: Andy Bohn, J. Beck
Director of photography: Joe Anderson
Production designer: Scott Kuzio
Music: Roger Neill
Costume designer: Carissa Kelly
Editor: Geoffrey Richman
R rating, 92 minutes