Mike Birbiglia’s Don’t Think Twice is an honest, funny look at professional rivalry and its effect on the members of an improv troupe. Many of the issues raised, however, could apply to any competitive profession. How to cope-or remain friends- when some succeed and others do not?
That is exactly the challenge confronting The Commune, a New York improv group whose members are friends offstage. Miles (Birbiglia) is their leader and, for most, teacher. Everyone is thoroughly grounded in the three rules of improv-say yes, it’s all about the group, and don’t think.
Early on, their professional security is threatened when their longtime performance space is sold. This turns out to be a minor problem compared to what happens next. A member of the troupe, Jack (Keegan-Michael Key), lands a spot on Weekend Live (a fairly clear Saturday Night Live knock-off).
Jack’s success has repercussions within the group, starting with his girlfriend Samantha (Gillian Jacobs). Samantha, who is happy with the status quo, balks at changes in their relationship caused by Jack’s new gig. Bill (Chris Gethard) and Allison (Kate Micucci) renew their focus on writing projects-in Bill’s case, submissions for Weekend Live. Lindsay (Tami Sagher), another aspiring writer, is from a wealthy family and somewhat guilty about her privilege. Her feelings are further conflicted by her envy of Jack’s success. Miles has the most difficulty of all, watching his former student get his dream job.
Birbiglia is a seasoned improv performer, as are most of the other cast members. The sole exception is Gillian Jacobs (Community). In a Q & A following the screening, Birbiglia and Jacobs talked about Birbiglia’s process to ease Jacobs into improv. Kate Micucci, who had not done improv recently, trained along with Jacobs. The entire cast had two weeks of performing before a live audience. Some of the improv shown in the film is footage from those performances.
All that preparation pays off; the group has an easy chemistry that adds a great deal to their routines. Don’t Think Twice has quite a few improv routines that occur off-stage, as well. You get the feeling you are eavesdropping on a bunch of friends who just happen to be uncommonly funny. Good camera and editing work (by Joe Anderson and Geoffrey Richman, respectively) do a lot to reinforce this.
At the same time, Birbiglia carefully avoids tipping the balance toward outright farce. Not all character arcs are shown in the same level of detail, but the audience understands why troupe members feel and act as they do. Narrative developments feel organic to what has come before. Birbiglia also does an excellent job with that difficult animal, tone. It takes a lot of work to make something look this effortless, and I applaud him for the result.
Theme: Professional Rivalry
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Sources: NPR: How Mike Birbiglia Applies “Yes, And” To Improv and Beyond http://www.npr.org/2016/07/23/486735247/how-mike-birbiglia-applies-yes-and-to-improv-and-beyond