When do you give up on a dream? Or what do you do when you realize your supposed dream is not what you actually want? These are questions that many thirty-somethings grapple with, and these are the questions that Mike Birbiglia explores in Don’t Think Twice. With his sophomore effort, the writer, director and star steps away from the actual biographical (Sleepwalk with Me) to the thematically biographical, telling this story through the eyes of an improvisational comedy group called The Commune. As we meet The Commune, they are facing the likely final weeks of their run together as the theater they practice, perform, and teach in has been sold. The Commune members are also each hoping for one last shot at making it onto Weekend Live, the film’s close-to-reality version of Saturday Night Live. Many in the improv world, particularly those in the Groundlings and Second City, view SNL as “the pinnacle of sports comedy,” and so too does The Commune see getting onto Weekend Live as getting called up to the majors.
As Birbiglia told a rapt audience after a screening of the film, the magic of improv is that everyone is equal on stage despite where they are in real life — “art is socialism, and life is capitalism.” And so it is in Don’t Think Twice, where six friends and colleagues on the stage have to come to grips with their competitive failures and successes off the stage. Birbiglia is ostensibly the lead and, in facing one of the harsher realities offered in the film, is center to some brutally honest scenes. But it’s Gillian Jacobs who sits at the film’s emotional core. That Jacobs is great should come as no surprise to those who have already seen her shine in Netflix’s Love or 2014’s Life Partners. But here, as her character Samantha tries to figure out what she wants in life, both professionally and regarding her relationship with Keegan-Michael Key’s Jack, Jacobs is amazing. She’s so grounded, presenting a fully realized woman who is almost painfully too fully realized, equal parts funny and heartbreaking.
In fact, that’s a good description for the film as a whole. Don’t Think Twice is a hard movie to watch at times, with these moments that feel so real and true that you squirm, feeling like you should not be watching something so intimately uncomfortable. But Birbiglia’s script smartly does not wallow in these moments of discomfort, balancing them out with uproariously funny scenes. Both poignant and hilarious, Don’t Think Twice is similar to a Judd Apatow film in that way, except that both the emotional and comedic beats feel more realistic than even the best Apatow moments.
While the film’s emotional focus is on these three members of The Commune, the other three members are equally funny and poignant, as brought to life by Kate Micucci (half of the amazing Garfunkel and Oates, among many other things), Chris Gethard (a comedy “that guy” actor), and Tami Sagher (an improv legend and successful comedy writer/producer). Through and with these six characters, Don’t Think Twice shows us a circle of close friends, people who love each other, but who are competing with each other off stage. They almost all are given fully-realized character arcs (with the only criticism of the film being that Micucci’s Allison is not as fleshed-out as the others) that are all layered upon each other in ways that lead to those uncomfortable moments, which are so painful to watch that Birbiglia joked the movie could have been called The Chamber of Horrific Thoughts.
The reason the comedy and the pathos hit so hard is because Birbiglia has managed to make a film that honestly captures the truth of a thing. One member of The Commune takes their career to that Weekend Live next level, leaving the others to struggle to make it on their own, to try to tag along, to figure out what they really want, and to come to grips with whether they’re even good enough to do this. If you have ever tried to make it in a creative career, or if in any career you have grappled with trying to take that next step or questioned if you even want to take that next step, this movie will hit so close to home that it may just punch you in the heart, and you won’t be sure if your tears are from laughing so hard or something else.
Fans of improv will love this for the improv scenes alone (which are made up of both scripted and actual improvised moments). But this movie should, and hopefully will be, loved by everyone. Birbiglia is planning to take the film on a thirty-city tour this summer and I can’t urge you enough to find it when it’s in your neck of the woods and go. Because Don’t Think Twice is simply a heartbreaking, but hilarious, delight. The film was easily the best one to play at this year’s South by Southwest, and it may also turn out to be the year’s best movie.
Don’t Think Twice had its world premiere at South by Southwest 2016.