The Dark Side of Comedy in “Don’t Think Twice”

August 27, 2016

Don't Think Twice

from Indy Week

One of today’s most distinctive comic voices, Mike Birbiglia has a meandering storytelling style that occupies a very specific coordinate in the Venn diagram of funny business — somewhere among the intersections of stand-up comedy, DIY theater and confessional monologue.

When Birbiglia brought his one-man show My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend to Durham a few years back, I remember thinking it was the leanest, meanest, funniest thing I’d seen on stage in years. His other famous long-form comedy bit, Sleepwalk With Me, went through several incarnations — radio feature, touring show, book — before evolving into Birbiglia’s 2012 feature film debut as director.

Now comes Don’t Think Twice, Birbiglia’s new dramatic comedy (comedic drama?), which branches out into new but adjacent territory. The movie chronicles a group of NYC improv comedy performers whose bonds are tested when one of their number breaks through to big time success.

Birbiglia leads the ensemble cast as Miles, founder and de facto leader of the improv troupe known as The Commune. Miles is getting a bit old in the tooth. At 35, he’s still living in a makeshift dorm loft, teaching improv classes, and bedding his 20-something students whenever he gets the chance.

The Commune features five other regular performers, including Allison (Kate Micucci), an aspiring cartoonist and graphic artist; Bill (Chris Gethard), a brainy hipster with the requisite thick glasses; and Lindsay (Tami Sagher), a talented writer managing a sticky marijuana addiction. Barely.

The real trouble begins when Jack and Samantha — the romantically-involved cast members with the most star power — get invited to audition for the fictional Weekend Live, a thinly-veiled stand-in for Saturday Night Live. In an inspired bit of casting, Jack is played by Keegan-Michael Key, whose natural charisma cannot be suppressed in any medium.

As writer and director, Birbiglia does his best to service the stories of all six characters. Some arcs are more compelling than others. The heart of the film belongs to Samantha (Gillian Jacobs), who correctly assesses the situation when Jack gets his big break. His departure triggers a cascade of buried feelings and resentments, which Samantha manages to dodge with an inspired bit of self-sabotage. Sam doesn’t actually want to make it big. She loves The Commune as it is. She’s in the moment.

Compared to Birbiglia’s other work, Don’t Think Twice is surprisingly conventional in structure and form. To be frank, bitterweet comedies about struggling young creative types struggling are easy to find on the independent film circuit. After all, young screenwriters are constantly instructed to write about what they know. Birbiglia’s film moves to these overly familiar rhythms, and too many scenes creak with weighty contrivance. The film also maintains an excessively holy regard for the truth-telling power of improvisational theater. Will Jack and Samantha resolve their relationship crisis … onstage, in the middle of an improv scene? I’m afraid that they just might.

The movie is much more successful when it spirals out into those tangential trains of thought so familiar from Birbiglia’s storytelling stage style. One darkly funny bit has the comedy company debating the propriety of impersonating a guy who just came out of a coma. There are some additional and excellent riffs on obsessive-compulsive disorders and Liam Neeson movies. Also watch for Ben Stiller in an extended cameo.

Don’t Think Twice has good performances and plenty of laughs, and it should appeal in particular to anyone with an interest in the clockwork mechanics of comedy. But for a movie that extols the virtues of improvisation, it’s surprisingly self-conscious and by-the-book. Birbiglia is at his best when he’s moving sideways to established currents, rather than swimming with them.

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