Mike Birbiglia, as writer and director, has proven he is a master of cringe-worthy scenes. At times, he leaves his audience longing for a bathroom break just to get some relief. But just as the uneasiness begins to take over, he lifts the audience up, bringing them back to normalcy. As a result, his characters become more endearing in their ever-evolving humanity, and the audience voluntarily continues down this road with him. Just like his 2012 feature “Sleepwalk with Me,” Birbiglia’s “Don’t Think Twice” explores the not so funny side of being a struggling comedian. Ironically the premise makes for an effective drama.
“Don’t Think Twice” follows an amateur New York City improv troupe, “The Commune,” and their friendship in the midst of chasing their dreams. When not performing, Miles (Birbiglia) teaches an improv 101 class at their rented performance space, often bringing home many of his female students. Jack (Keegan-Michael Key) and Samantha (Gillian Jacobs) find themselves engulfed in each other and their romance.
Allison (Kate Micucci) quietly works on her true passion as a graphic artist. Lindsay (Tami Sagher) is the daughter of wealthy parents, who spends most of her time smoking marijuana and can’t seem to hold down a job. Bill (Chris Gethard) serves humus samples at a local grocer while trying to find ways to make his father proud of him. The group of friends are just trying to make ends meet, while hoping to be discovered by a “Saturday Night Live” spoof called “Weekend Live.” When Jack is selected as a cast member of “Weekend Live,” the troupe’s friendships are challenged. Opportunity for the rest of the members is vanishing, and they must cope with the realities of their lives.
Birbiglia, recognized by many for his roles in “Orange is the New Black” and “Trainwreck,” anchors the cast as an improv teacher who watches as his protégés continue to find success beyond him, while he continues to struggle. We observe as his hopeful tone transforms into one of jealousy and resentment. Jack, played by Key, is at the center of much of that jealousy. It is Key’s performance that was the most surprising. A known funny man, Key’s portrayal of Jack has depth in the face of garnered fame and gives the film perspective. But it is Samantha who is the first to truly understand what is at stake underneath all the perceived glory. Jacobs’ performance is the perfect contrast to Key’s Jack. The two create a pleasantly believable chemistry as a misfit couple.
Micucci, Sagher and Gethard all do respectable jobs in their roles, but don’t share as much screen time as Birbiglia, Key and Jacobs. They still play a crucial part in how the story plays out, and the way in which the characters grow over the film’s 90-minute run time. Gethard’s performance as Bill is especially critical as he acts as a sort of glue that holds the group together during moments of needed bonding throughout the film. Micucci is the weakest link, although I’m not sure it is as much about her performance as it is Allison not being a necessary character. Although more pertinent to the story, Sagher’s character just isn’t that memorable.
Beyond its characters, the film isn’t fancy. There is nothing particularly special about the cinematography. It doesn’t have a tone shifting soundtrack. It doesn’t boast award winning screenwriting. But it is an honest film about real life. It is a simple story that thrives on its source material: experience. Birbiglia, a stand-up comedian himself, has likely lived many of these experiences. What makes the film work is that it doesn’t try to pretend to be something that it is not. At its core, the film is a reflective piece on the pains of realizing life, for the majority of us, won’t amount to the grandiosity of fame. Even for those who do find fortune, quickly learn life isn’t perfect.
Even in sitting through some awkward scenes riddled with inappropriately timed and bad jokes (both purposefully placed), “Don’t Think Twice” is worth the subjection. The greater message and overarching themes are relatable. The characters grow out of necessity, and they learn a lesson about life along the way. And in the end, who knew a little film about comedians could teach us a thing or two about the dramas of life?