In the spirit of improvisational comedy’s “yes, and” method of developing a scene: Yes, “Don’t Think Twice” is one of the best films of the year. And it’s an unusually delicate movie about the brutal business of being funny for a living.
The movie is no high-pressure, bam-pow experience. Writer-director Mike Birbiglia, who co-stars as a Brooklyn-based improv veteran who fears his big break happened somewhere else without him, works in a lower key, getting at the particular dynamics and tensions found at the heart of improv. It’s a performance genre that goes wrong so very much more often than it goes right.
I don’t want to bore you with improv history, and neither does Birbiglia. In a deft prologue “Don’t Think Twice” teaches a bit about the seminal Compass Players, where Mike Nichols, Elaine May and so many others came up. Long-form improv champion Del Close is quoted in the opening voice-over, by way of his credo: “Fall, and figure out what to do on the way down.” More prosaically (and “Don’t Think Twice” has its prosaic moments), it’s called working “in the moment.”
Slight, compact but extremely sharp, the film concerns the members of a fictitious troupe, The Commune, plainly modeled on the Los Angeles-based Groundlings and Chicago’s Compass, iO and Second City. Birbiglia’s script, apt in its details and behavioral quirks, generates just enough narrative conflict for the whole thing to not float away. Thirty-six and sleeping, perfunctorily, with a steady stream of his improv students, Miles (Birbiglia) once comes “within inches” of landing a job on “Weekend Live,” which is plainly “Saturday Night Live” by another name. The hungriest Commune member is Jack (Keegan-Michael Key), whose girlfriend, Samantha (Gillian Jacobs), more wary of the next step, is also in the troupe.
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When a couple of “Weekend Live” cast members show up at one of their shows, Jack can’t help himself: He goes rogue, starts showboating and pulls out his best Obama impression. (Key, of course, does a pretty good Obama.) The screenplay deals with some of the Commune members getting hired by the TV show, and the others, not. Meantime the troupe is getting evicted; their Brooklyn storefront is about to become an Urban Outfitters. One of the performers, doggedly insecure Bill (Chris Gethard, wonderful), copes with a family crisis.
Working various day jobs and nursing varying degrees of disappointment, the ensemble members support each other even as times grow tougher and more bittersweet. Like improv itself, “Don’t Think Twice” is all about the tightrope straddling generous and selfish comic instincts, as well as the one spanning the gorge of potential failure, night after night.
At its best “Don’t Think Twice” is valentine on one side, cautionary tale on the other. It harkens to some unexpected films not explicitly about improv comedy — Paul Mazursky’s “Next Stop, Greenwich Village,” or Barry Levinson’s “Diner” — but very much in the improv spirit, about dreamers living in what Stephen Colbert refers to as a “humorocracy.”
Birbiglia’s film has its facile moments, and a climactic onstage reunion between two of the key characters belongs to a slightly less good movie about this particular subject. But in this summer of sequels, reboots and the usual, “Don’t Think Twice” is a genuinely charming comedy about real people challenging themselves to create new realities for laughs and a little truth, one made-up scene at a time.
Don’t Think Twice
☆☆☆☆ out of 5
Cast: Keegan-Michael Key, Gillian Jacobs, Mike Birbiglia, Kate Micucci, Chris Gethard.
Director: Mike Birbiglia.
Running time: 1:32.
Rated: R, for language and some drug use.