In “Don’t Think Twice,” things seem all warm, fuzzy and funny for improv comedy troupe the Commune.
They prep for a show by doing word-association exercises. “Duck season” evolves into “Pew pew, Nintendo,” as the members play off each other, and in a voiceover, one shares improv is all “about a group working together in the moment to create something that never happened before or will never happen again.” Before taking the stage, the six comedians repeat “I got your back” in a harmonious huddle.
And what disrupts this charming utopia? The troupe’s theater is closing at the end of the month, then some members snag an audition for a popular TV show, while others are left in the dust. Tensions and egos are on the rise.
Couple Jack (Keegan-Michael Key) and Sam (Gillian Jacobs) prep for the “Weekend Live” audition, to the chagrin of Miles (Mike Birbiglia), who’s jaded from his own failed audition in the ’90s.
Meanwhile, the rest of the improv actors are on the hunt for another performance space, Allison (Kate Micucci) and Bill (Chris Gethard) team up on a writing submission for “Weekend Live” — also to the chagrin of Miles — and Lindsay (Tami Sagher) seems more into her weed than entering the rat race.
But motives aren’t as they seem for this group of besties, and this film unfolds like an ensemble character study into the people who devote their lives to laughter.
Birbiglia as a writer/director pays homage to the craft of comedy throughout “Don’t Think Twice.”
Jack practices a Liam Neeson impression in the shower. Sam works on an accent at the kitchen table, taking notes and rewinding a YouTube clip. The two spend the day this way: Taking out the trash, outside a brownstone, sitting by the water — always practicing their bits. To a laywoman, it’s a wonder to see the work that goes into trying to make people laugh.
And the improvisation scenes pack their own power, and the stage is a sanctutary.
Birbiglia’s lens travels around the stage in long shots, adding energy to the scenes. And as the film progresses, and the stage is compromised by stardom, the lens hones in on the performers’ faces revealing an intimacy and some improv magic.
It’s his second feature-length film, and behind the camera and in front of it, Birbiglia’s on point portraying, with searing honesty, the complexity of feeling supportive, jealous, loving and threatened by another’s success.
Mike Birbiglia and, Kate Micucci in “Don’t Think Twice.”
Miles hears his former troupe-mate has no sway in getting him on “Weekend Live.” Then, Miles attacks: “I taught you everything, just tell them that. … This is very unattractive, your little hat, your attitude,” his clear blue eyes cut with bitterness, his face in a semi scowl.
In another scene, after the troupe hears the news, they break, each reading about their friend’s success online. They look forlorn, dejected, but there’s a loss there, too.
Some cons: Miles’ bitterness seems authentic to the biz, but it gets tiresome. There are so many players, and it’s difficult to feel deeply invested. Some seem overlooked, but it’s a testament to the ensemble to want more of these characters — which is inevitable.
Some pros: “Don’t Think Twice” illuminates the craft and the anxieties of making it and not making it. Solid acting ranges in Key, Jacobs, Birbiglia and Gethard. Also, the laughs are plenty in a Liam Neeson impression, a whiny traveler bit and something about orphans on stage.
The comedy is one-upped only by the backstage vulnerability here.
As the crew packs up the remnants of their closing theater, Bill weighs in: “When I go to the grocery store and people treat me like I don’t exist … I’m like, I have a secret: I go on stage, I kill, I crush, I’m a superhero.
“Without improv, I’m kinda just a loser.”
This is a side rarely seen, and that’s the best pro to “Don’t Think Twice.” Birbiglia illustrates the human complexities of the craft and the business. This shows comedy is a skill, a sacrifice, it’s cutthroat, — and it’s worth it.
It’s also worth a watch.
P.S.: Expect cameos from Ben Stiller and Lena Dunham, and yes, an instrumental version of Bob Dylan’s song does make an appearance.
Rating: R for language and some drug use
Now showing: Zinema 2
More info: dontthinktwicemovie.com