Films focusing on a very niche subject walk an incredibly fine line. Most of the time if a film is geared on something specifically niche, it’s a fair bet that the writer or director has experience in the subject. This can either work brilliantly in favour of the film, or it can alienate audiences and feel quite awkward to experience.
Don’t Think Twice, written and directed by Mike Birbiglia, faces that challenge. It tackles improv comedy – an art form that isn’t very frequently depicted on the big screen. Birbiglia himself has a background in improv, so without precise scripting and controlled direction his film would fall mostly flat for anyone who doesn’t have much experience with this particular brand of comedy. Thankfully, both his writing and directing here are superb, meaning Don’t Think Twice walks this fine line with ease.
Jack (Keegan-Michael Key), Sam (Gillian Jacobs), Miles (Mike Birbiglia), Bill (Chris Gethard), Allison (Kate Micucci) and Lindsay (Tami Sagher) make up The Commune, a small scale improv comedy group in New York City. While they all love what they do, they each have aspirations to move on to something bigger. Jack and Sam, the only couple in the group, both receive invitations to audition for major comedy show Weekend Live (the film’s take on Saturday Night Live, of course), which sparks awkwardness amongst everyone since Miles previously auditioned years ago and failed to get the part.
Don’t Think Twice takes on a familiar concept: a group of friends become challenged when something causes a rift between them – but where the film finds greatness is in its ability to juggle a multitude of themes and tones and never feel like it doesn’t fully understand any of them. The result is a film that manages to be both hilarious and heartbreaking, frequently at the same time. It has probably the highest joke-to-laugh ratio of any feature released in 2016, and packs an enormous emotional punch whenever something major happens to its characters. As only Birbiglia‘s second feature as a writer/director, it’s a seriously impressive feat.
It’s All About The People
Birbiglia casts himself in his own film but, succeeding where The Birth of a Nation fell, he is more than capable of keeping the spotlight away from himself whenever he needs to. Jack and Sam are the two lead characters, and Birbiglia understands this; the film could work without Miles, but it couldn’t without Jack and Sam. He also gives each member of the Commune their own personal issues, every character feels fully fleshed out and interesting. Each of them would work as the protagonist in their own film; six films I would be more than willing to watch if they were a similar quality to this.
The deeply drawn characters are benefited further by the excellent performances from all involved. While Jacobs is given the most emotional material to play with, all of which she completely nails, the rest of the cast are each given their moment to shine. After one particularly bad night out for the group, one character drops a bombshell that threatens to make everything worse, and we really feel how each other character responds to it.
Both the thoughtful writing and pitch perfect performances combine to create multi-layered characters who feel real. It might sound like something every film should possess, but Don’t Think Twice manages this better than almost any other film in recent memory.
Star Of The Show
While the cast are undeniably strong, it’s Birbiglia himself who comes away from this with the most to praise. His performance is terrific, but his skills as a writer and director are what make Don’t Think Twice such an engaging film. He keeps his story moving quickly; much like improv comedy itself, it constantly feels like it’s building towards something and never feels like it’s stagnating.
While it does suffer from a lack of any elongated comedic sequences, it easily gets by on the strength of its wacky one liners and hilarious recurring gags; the group’s impersonation of Bill’s dying father forcing out the words “thank you” gets funnier and funnier every time it crops up.
As well as offering up a nicely balanced script, Birbiglia also demonstrates a keen eye for thoughtful cinematography. The film is mostly rapid with its editing, but slows this down for the improv routines, most of which are shot in a single take. The stage-set sequences are also always presented from the stage, looking out into the audience, creating an effect that allows the film to feel more about the characters than the improv.
On top of this, it’s also extremely moving, and in a very human way. It tackles themes of friendship and loyalty and ageing and dreams against reality, and does so in a mature and intelligent way. One particular scene between Jack and Sam that would be very easy to go overboard with, Birbiglia stages as part of an improv routine, forcing the characters to keep it grounded.
As for the rest of the cast: Miles simply longs for a bigger purpose and understanding; Bill constantly worries about underachieving in life; Lindsay struggles to get her passion project off of the ground; Allison dwells on whether her privileged life has benefited her in damaging ways. Each character has something touching about them, and Birbiglia handles all of these themes in a deft and understated way – it all feels real and it all hits the heart hard.
By finding this new angle to look at the film’s characters with, Don’t Think Twice suddenly feels incredibly personal. It’s a film that feels rooted in the present – lots of sequences are focused on how one character’s decision will immediately have an effect on everyone else – but it always finds time to acknowledge the future.
With these small but moving stories bound to each individual character, we get a real sense of their plans for the future and what worries them about their respective goals. We all worry about the future, you’d be pretty inhuman if you didn’t, and the way Don’t Think Twice makes you look at this fundamental anxiousness with regards to its leading characters is both saddening and uplifting.
Birbiglia‘s love for this offbeat brand of comedy really shines through here, and in some ways the film itself feels very similar to improv: it moves efficiently and relies mostly on low key but consistent humour and the energy of its cast. Don’t Think Twice is a film that acts as a love letter to something small, but tackles themes that are experienced around the world. It’s a tricky thing to pull off, but miraculously it does it.
The comedy lands (even the improv sequences are hilarious, despite the fact that we know they’re scripted), the emotional beats work, and the characters come across as people that, flaws and all, you just want to spend time with. It’s a very funny film about very funny people, but finds areas in life that aren’t funny and shows the impact that it can have on even the most unexpected people. As a film, Don’t Think Twice is pretty great. As only a second feature for Birbiglia, it is truly masterful stuff. I don’t know what he has his sights on next, but I’m already in.
Did you manage to catch Don’t Think Twice during its limited release? If so, what did you think? Is Mike Birbiglia a director to keep an eye on for the future? Let us know in the comments!