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Film comedies are supposed to be funny—that’s obvious—but movies about comedy are almost uniformly sad. The neurotic, emotionally challenged comic is a cliche thanks to Punchline, The King of Comedy, and Funny People, not to mention all those comedians complaining about their lives on podcasts these days. Mike Birbiglia’s Don’t Think Twice is another melancholic ode to comedic suffering, but its earned realism and thoughtful examination of the perils of artistic success make it a distinct addition to the sad-sack showbiz canon.
Don’t Think Twice follows a painful few weeks in the life of The Commune, a popular, New York improv group that has rotated a crop of talented young players in and out of show business for 20 years. While his contemporaries have moved on to bigger and better gigs, Miles (Birbiglia), one of the founding members, is still there. He spends his off-hours romancing his young female students and reminiscing about the time he was “inches away” from a spot on Weekend Live (a Saturday Night Live proxy).
In a group of sensitive artists who depend on each other nightly, one crisis would be threatening enough, but The Commune has two. Two of their brightest stars, Jack (Keegan-Michael Key) and Sam (Gillian Jacobs) are up for roles on Weekend Live. Meanwhile, the theater where they perform is being torn down and rebuilt as a Trump Tower, and finding a new venue in an increasingly expensive city is a challenge. These group crises kick off a series of individual, existential ones, with each member of the group questioning their future in show business. Meanwhile, Jack gets cast on the show, and Sam doesn’t, while the group somehow turns its dysfunction into spontaneous comedy on a nightly basis.
The laughs in Don’t Think Twice are earned through blood, sweat, and genuine awkwardness. Birbiglia wisely cast actors who have real-life experience in improv, and those who are playing fictional analogs of themselves fare best. Key was a regular at Second City before being cast in MadTV and creating Key & Peele. As Jack finds his footing at a new gig while fending off his “funny friends” who want his help getting their foot in the door, Key naturally evokes the tenuousness of being caught between two worlds. Similarly, improv vet Chris Gethard, whose comedy often incorporates his real-life depression, plays the most emotionally vulnerable member of the group. The creak in his voice and his hangdog expression seem to telegraph his fate of being perpetually left behind.
Because of the glut of characters and relatively sparse runtime, the emotional arcs Birbiglia has crafted for his players never quite land. But the choice of setting covers up this particular flaw. The mosaic approach to storytelling is well-suited for the world of improv comedy because it allows for the focus to be kept on the common ground, on that invisible center that holds both the film and the troupe together. As one character says early in the film, when explaining the rules of improv, “It’s not about the individual. It’s about the group.” The characters in Don’t Think Twice frequently forget this rule, and they suffer for it, but the film mercifully never does.
Don’t Think Twice opens Friday at E Street Cinema.