In the spirit of off-the-cuff improvisation that the central comedy troupe of Don’t Think Twice practices, allow me to first mention a TV series I had in mind going into a screening of Mike Birbiglia’s new film. I was thinking BoJack Horseman—specifically, its cult-like depiction of the improvisational comedy troupe that BoJack’s ne’er-do-well roommate Todd (voiced by Aaron Paul) joins midway through its second season. Not that I expected Don’t Think Twice to confirm what Raphael Bob-Waksberg’s series satirized—writer/director Birbiglia’s perspective toward improv comedians turns out to be, for the most part, more affectionate—but one of the most appealing aspects of Don’t Think Twice is the sense of close-knit community it depicts among its main characters, all of them members of a fictional New York City-based improv troupe named the Commune. They’re so attached to each other, at least in the film’s early stages, that they regularly spend their Saturday nights with each other watching Weekend Live, the Saturday Night Live-like late-night comedy show that represents the endgame for which they’ve devoted so many of their years toiling in relative obscurity.
In the opening stages of Birbiglia’s film, though, I thought of another work of cinematic fiction: Jacques Rivette’s 1971 behemoth Out 1. Rivette focuses much of his eight-episode, 13-and-a-half-hour work on two contrasting theater troupes: one group that rehearses an already set-down interpretation of the Aeschylus play they’re performing, another that takes a different Aeschylus play as merely a jumping-off point for a series of improvisations during which they try to discover their interpretation on the fly. It’s the latter troupe that corresponds most closely to the Commune, with Rivette capturing their purely instinctual rehearsal sessions in merciless long takes that help give these lengthy scenes a documentary feel. Birbiglia is, of course, nowhere near as formally daring in his approach to capturing the Commune’s live performances on-screen, and that should hardly be counted against him. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but wish for a deeper immersion in the art of improvisation than what he’s willing to offer, especially in light of the brief history of improv comedy with which he opens the film.
Birbiglia’s priorities lie elsewhere: interpersonal dramas, introspective soul-searching, an overall sense of melancholy. When one of the Commune members, Jack (Keegan-Michael Key), finally reaches that aforementioned pinnacle and becomes a new member of Weekend Live, the ascension brings out into the open the sense of cutthroat competition that was perhaps always underlying the surface camaraderie. As close-knit as he, his mentor Miles (Birbiglia), Jack’s girlfriend Samantha (Gillian Jacobs) and the rest are, they’re all vying for the same highly coveted spots; no surprise that an unspoken sense of jealousy soon develops after Jack is picked. Therein lies Don’t Think Twice’s most poignant insight into this particular creative world: This “frenemies” dynamic takes place in an environment so brutal that it forces those who don’t make it to the top to wonder if they ever had the talent to begin with. Even Jack, who may have proved to be the “best” of the Commune members, finds himself still facing an uphill climb at Weekend Live.
Alas, Birbiglia’s dramatic instincts aren’t always as sharp as his grasp on a showbiz milieu he clearly knows deeply and intimately. This is especially evident in the film’s last third, which, if anything, becomes a bit too plot-heavy. An out-of-nowhere late-breaking revelation regarding another Commune member and her connection to Weekend Live hints at a character’s privilege in ways that feel half-baked, and its concluding epilogue is filled with fairly unconvincing attempts at warm and fuzzy uplift.
Despite its miscalculations, Don’t Think Twice does leave a bitter, lingering aftertaste. Though the members of the Commune might have finally made peace with their lots in life, a sense of dashed hopes and dreams still hangs in the air, even as an acoustic solo-piano version of Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice (It’s Alright)” over the end credits tries to end the film on a conciliatory note.
Starring: Keegan-Michael Key, Gillian Jacobs, Mike Birbiglia, Chris Gethard, Kate Micucci, Tami Sagher
Release Date: July 22, 2016
Kenji Fujishima is a freelance film critic, contributing to Slant Magazine, Brooklyn Magazine, The A.V. Club and the Village Voice. He is also Deputy Editor of Movie Mezzanine. When he’s not watching movies and writing and editing film criticism, he’s trying to absorb as much music, art and literature as possible. He has not infrequently been called a “culture vulture” for that reason.