'Don't Think Twice': SXSW Review

Jon Pack
A well balanced ensemble explores the limits of supportiveness in comedy.

An improv-comedy troupe faces its possible end in Mike Birbiglia's sophomore feature co-starring Keegan-Michael Key.

Being part of a symbiotic comedic "group mind" is fantastic, according to Mike Birbiglia's Don't Think Twice — your buddies always have your back onstage, they know how to make what you just said funnier, they encourage those offstage silly voices that no normal person would tolerate. But as any rock band can tell you, fame rarely distributes its gifts equally: When a member of this film's long-lived improv troupe suddenly becomes successful, it's a challenge to their survival bigger than the one presented by New York City's punishing real estate market. Expanding on the behind-the-curtain Sleepwalk With Me, which focused on the personal life of a stand-up comic, Birbiglia displays a feel for his troupe-minded brethren here; rising stars in the cast help commercial prospects tremendously for this well-rounded picture.

Birbiglia plays Miles, whose three-man/three-woman group The Commune has hit its creative stride but struggles financially: Miles shares a chopped-up dormlike dwelling with some of them, and all but one have terrible day jobs. (That one, Tami Sagher's Lindsay, has her parents' money to fall back on — and the chip on her shoulder that comes with that.) At the film's start, they learn their theater has been sold to a developer; they may be able to keep performing and teaching classes, but it won't be here.

Around the same time, scouts for the SNL-like "Weekend Live" attend a performance and offer a couple of members the auditions they've always wanted. One gets the gig.

What's more awkward than the brief silence of five comedy lifers trying to congratulate their partner on getting a job they'd kill to have? Birbiglia knows, though, that the real discomfort is yet to come — when this new castmember, working anxiously for comedy's most powerful man, is expected to find ways of sneaking the rest of the team into writing gigs on the show. Individually and in pairs, the left-behind performers try not to look desperate as they try to document something they prove every time they're on stage: They're really funny people. What good is that all-for-one, one-for-all ethos when you're alone with a writing submission in your hand? Or when five are on a couch, watching the sixth be a little hacky on national TV?

Several characters expose their lesser selves here, both personally and professionally: Keegan-Michael Key's Jack, for instance, commits the cardinal improv sin of commandeering scenes for himself when he gets nervous. But Birbiglia is especially willing to let himself look bad, to explore onscreen a performer's worst fear — that he just doesn't have it. Maybe he's a faker who'd be quicker to realize his failings if teaching improv classes didn't often get him laid.

As much as Don't Think Twice focuses on professional envy, though, it remains a love letter to this weirdo art form called improv. Scenes of The Commune onstage, in which a moving camera contributes to the illusion of spontaneity, are frequently hilarious. (The six actors did some public shows together, reportedly generating some of the material in the final script.) Gillian Jacobs and Chris Gethard are especially reliable laugh-getters here, albeit in opposite ways — Gethard often working misery for humor, Jacobs fueled by true-believer comic zeal.

The film's workplace shakeup triggers much personal reevaluation, and rather than leave things in a state of upheaval Birbiglia turns to a fairly conventional, bittersweet life-moves-on mode in the film's final scenes. Living for years in the shadow of an old friend's success can certainly be tougher than this, but for Don't Think Twice, keeping the spirit is its own reward.

 

Production company: Cold Iron Pictures

Cast: Keegan-Michael Key, Gillian Jacobs, Mike Birbiglia, Kate Micucci, Tami Sagher, Chris Gethard

Director-Screenwriter: Mike Birbiglia

Producers: Mike Birbiglia, Ira Glass, Miranda Bailey, Amanda Marshall

Executive producers: Andy Bohn, J. Beck

Director of photography: Joe Anderson

Production designer: Scott Kuzio

Costume designer: Carissa Kelly

Editor: Geoffrey Richman

Composer: Roger Neill

Casting directors: Kate Geller, Jessica Kelly         

Venue: South By Southwest Film Festival (Headliners)

Sales: Bec Smith, UTA

 

91 minutes

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