Filmmakers have always been fascinated by the struggles of show business. In 2012, Mike Birbiglia provided a sobering look at the life of a struggling stand up comedian with his semi-autobiographical debut Sleep Walk With Me. Don’t Think Twice turns to the world of improv theatre to examine the intersection of art and identity in Birbiglia’s excellent second feature.
There’s an old saying that comedy is pain plus time. That’s almost always certainly true, but it’s also a massive oversimplification of the work it takes to make something funny. No one knows this work more than the members of The Commune, a successful New York City improv group that’s carved out a niche for itself over ten years. Of course, successful doesn’t mean profitable. Most of the troupe lives in a grungy apartment, working dead end jobs, living paycheck to paycheck in hopes that they’ll get noticed The Commune has become an unofficial incubator for the sketch comedy show ‘Weekend Life’ – a rather over analog to “SNL”. Several of the troupe’s members have moved on to rousing success, much to the chagrin of Commune founder, Miles (Mike Birbiglia) who can’t seem to figure out why some many of his students garner the success that’s evaded him for years.
The tightknit group’s friendship is tested when the Commune’s threadbare existence becomes threatened on two fronts. First its announced that their theatre will be closing and then one member gets offered a position on “Weekend Live”, exposing the troupe’s personal issues that threaten to dissolve the group. Jack (Keegan-Michael Key, Key and Peele) can’t help himself from showboating when scouts from “Weekend Live” attend shows, while Samantha (Gillian Jacobs, Community) struggles to decide how much success she’s comfortable; Allison (Kate Micucci, When in Rome) can’t seem to finish the comic book she’s been working on for years; Lindsay (Tami Sagher, Knocked Up) struggles with guilt about her privileged upbringing; and Bill (Chris Gethard, Broad City) can’t help but think his father might think he’s a failure.
Don’t Think Twice is an astute examination of how art impacts personality as much as personality impacts art. Bill bemoans his job handing out samples at a grocery store; if he can’t do improv, than he’s just a loser. Birbiglia exposes the inevitable paradox of conflating success with value. This is nowhere more evident than in their weekly critique of “Weekend Live”, a show they admit isn’t actually very good, but they all want to work on.
At times, Don’t Think Twice’s cautionary tale about success can feel familiar, but the improv scene proves a particularly poetic setting for it. The Commune begins each show by telling each other ‘I’ve got your back’. It’s an admirable promise that proves almost impossible to keep in an industry that values individuals, not groups. The film doesn’t give each member equal depth, but they all struggle with how they are perceived by themselves, their audience, and their friends, and asks the question: how can you know who you are when you’re three different people?
Verdict 4 out of 5
Don’t Think Twice is a solid second feature from Mike Birbiglia. It’s tighter and more accessible than Sleepwalk With Me, as well as being funnier and more thought provoking. It’s an honest portrayal of the entertainment business that neither vilifies nor romanticizes the successful entertainer, and the starving artist. The film falls into formula from time to time, but even when it does the Commune makes for pleasant company. Birbiglia’s Don’t Think Twice isn’t the most biting satire of show biz I’ve ever seen, but its one of the best, and definitely one of the most enjoyable.