Director: Mike Birbiglia
Starring: Keegan-Michael Key, Gillian Jacobs, Mike Birbiglia, Kate Micucci, Chris Gethard, Tami Sagher
It’s always heartwarming to see one of our friends develop a passion for the performing arts. Each time we see them up on stage, we’re in awe and thinking to ourselves, “Wow, Jamie should be famous for this!” Jamie agrees, but in the back of his mind he knows that there are countless other performers who work just as hard, and are just as good as he is. And each one of these competitors has a million friends, just like you and me, who think they’re the crème de la crop. That’s the nature of the performing arts.
Damian Chazelle’s “Whiplash” taught us this lesson, but now Mike Birbiglia’s “Don’t Think Twice” adds another angle to the performer’s dilemma: What if some of your competitors are not only your closest friends, but your teammates?
The film follows a comedy improv group named “The Commune”, made up of six amateurs who do free shows in the hopes of one day making it big. Their shot comes when some scouters for “Weekend Live” (a comedy-skit show with an uncanny resemblance to “Saturday Night Live”) attend one of their performances. However, only Sam (Gillian Jacobs) and her show-boating boyfriend Jack (Keegan-Michael Key) are offered auditions for “Weekend Live”, and in the end, Jack is the one who scores a role on the show.
What stands out about “Don’t Think Twice” is that it presents an honest picture of interpersonal relationships and how easily the balances of them can be upset. The scene in which The Commune performs for the “Weekend Live” representatives is a key example of this. Before the gang goes on, the group’s founder and self-proclaimed comedic pro Miles (Mike Birbiglia) warns Jack not to take center stage. Naturally, Jack does so anyway – showing off a skilled impersonation of Barack Obama. And his following success illustrates a point about teams: teams competing in an individualistic sport are not going to work out. As one would suspect, the old cliché “there’s no ‘I’ in team” comes up in the movie, but it’s fitting, because when Jack disregards the caveat The Commune begins to crumble. He tells his teammates about his new spot on “Weekend Live”, and the characters deliver realistic reactions; their words are of congratulations, but it’s plain to see that they all harbor feelings of jealously. More than that, the group members feel that they’ve been overlooked, cheated, or just that they deserve the opportunity more than Jack does. Birbiglia gives the best performance of them all, clearly drawing on his experience of facing difficulty in his own career.
“Don’t Think Twice” is somber; it’s essentially about a group of friends who start falling apart because one of them gains success. Even through the laugh-out-loud improv shows that the group puts on (and that will make you vow to visit your closest improv theater), there’s a note of sadness, because you can tell that The Commune is going to spiral downwards. You can’t even feel happy for Jack when he gets his breakthrough, knowing that this will push The Commune further towards the fall. It’s this sobering mood that makes the most impact, forcing the realization that in film and performing arts, it’s lonely at the top, and no one’s success is guaranteed. Being the best isn’t good enough.
The fact that “Whiplash” came out to make the same point only two years ago makes Birbiglia’s theme less unique. Sure, “Don’t Think Twice” does manifest a new facet of the performer’s struggle, but it’s generically cut from the same cloth as “Whiplash”. Regardless, the movie is a good second film for Birbiglia and if it’s any indication of how his director/writer career will develop, he’s putting himself on a good path.