By: Will Ashton (Two Beers) –
Mike Birbiglia is a big-hearted storyteller. In our cynical times, he’s a refreshing, humbling, and exceptionally gratifying voice. The comedian-turned-filmmaker’s stories come straight from the soul. They’re deeply personal, painfully relatable and, more than anything else, acutely human, without ever becoming cloying. Birbiglia is driven by affectionate sincerity, an affable sense of humor, and clear empathy and sympathy for flawed people and their individual struggles, preferably in the creative fields. He captured that purity exceptionally with his autobiographical directorial debut, 2012’s Sleepwalk with Me. He strikes that balance wonderfully yet again with his sophomore feature, Don’t Think Twice.
With every new project, Birbiglia continues to establish himself as one of the most refined storytellers of our time. This new one is no exception. It’s not only one of the funniest, sweetest, and most emotionally rewarding movies you’ll see this year; it’s one of the most honest and genuine as well.
Don’t Think Twice follows the downtrodden members of The Commune, a Brooklyn-based improv group composed of 30-something hard-knocked performers desperately trying to make it in the top. Specifically, landing a regular spot on Weekend Live, this world’s variation of Saturday Night Live, a position that has escaped group leader Miles (Birbiglia) more than a handful of times. He always considers himself inches away from the prize, but life often tells him otherwise.
Meanwhile, the team’s other members, Bill (Chris Gethard), Allison (Kate Micucci), Lindsay (Tami Sagher), Jack (Keegan-Michael Key), and Samantha (Gillian Jacobs), share their own fair share of problems. Lindsay is a trust-fund child who still lives at home and can’t make any sense of her life. Allison is an exceptionally talented artist, but she can’t complete the graphic novel she has worked on for the past nine years. Bill works endlessly on failed sketches for Weekend Live, and then gets struck by tragedy when his father winds up in emergency care following a motorcycle crash. Then there’s Jack and Samantha.
The couple of the group, they’re loyal and committed lovers, but their relationship is tested when change comes their way. When a Weekend Live scout attends a Commune show and decides to give them both auditions on the variety show, Samantha is afraid to move away from the comforts of improv and, therefore, bails from her shot on the series. Jack, however, has no problem securing a spot, therein by becoming Weekend Live‘s newest cast member. Naturally, that causes resentment, bitterness, and deep-seated envy to spread like wildfire across the team, especially with tensions mounting with their stage lease set to expire. They’ll either need to grow up or finally make a name for themselves these next few months, and that certainly won’t be easy. They might know how to survive on stage, but they’ll need some guidelines in order to navigate through everyday life.
Don’t Think Twice is certainly darker and more mature than Birbiglia’s debut, yet it contains the same earnest charm and specific vision that made his first film work so well. While there was often a mystical dreaminess to Sleepwalk with Me, for obvious reasons, Birbiglia’s sophomore feature is decidedly more palpable and down-to-earth, earning comparisons to the likes of James L. Brooks, Woody Allen, Nora Ephron, Paul Mazursky, and John Cassavetes in his developing directorial style. His new movie is simplistic-but-specific. The attention to character is exceptional, and — though Birbiglia juggles more balls than before this time — he balances the ensemble gracefully and assuredly. You feel the history, complicated emotions, and longstanding friendship shared between this circle. They all get their tender moments of self-reflection. They’re all given time to pontificate and it rarely feels forced or self-indulgent. It earns the right to be poignant and heart-wrenching by the end.
Every performance is well-crafted, but Jacobs, Key, and Gethard are the ones who shine the brightest throughout, namely since they’re usually given the most heavy lifting. Key’s performance is layered and dynamic, both sympathetic and ingrained, expressive and intimate. Jack’s troubling rising to fame is understandable and rightfully challenging. Even with the character’s rising celebrity status, his humanity is never forsaken, and that’s often thanks to his relationship with Jacobs’ Samantha. Jacobs has a knack for portraying confused women with fragile emotions (see also Netflix’s Love). Her work here is no exception. She’s superbly broken, often providing the movie’s most powerful moments. But like good improv, she doesn’t completely steal the show away from her co-stars — although she very well could have, especially under a less-restrained director. Likewise, undervalued comedic talent Gethard also gets his chance to celebrate his most astounding performance to date.
Additionally, New York City has played well in a million different movies. It’s one of the most cinematic cities in the world for a reason. But it also feels more inviting here than usual. Perhaps the specific focus of Don’t Think Twice gives it a more receptive feel. Birbiglia makes one of the biggest cities in the world homey and warm, without making The Big Apple a fairytale land in the process. The movie is at once realistic and sweeping, compassionate-but-completely-frank in its depiction of failure, reawakening, and acceptance in accomplishing your long-term dreams. Don’t Think Twice is as funny as it is sad, maybe even sadder than it is funny, yet the tone never feels uneven. Because you never question the authenticity of the characters. The honesty takes precedent here, no matter what. That’s one of Birbiglia’s greatest talents as a storyteller. He’ll only get better over time, I imagine.
Don’t Think Twice feels both short and longwinded, and I’m still not sure if that’s one of the film’s strengths or weaknesses. It’s impeccable how much Birbiglia can make you feel engulfed inside this confined world in just a short period of time. Though the introduction to our main characters might be just a little too cutesy, it doesn’t take long before you become involved, taken, and compelled by the story. In fact, you’re bummed you have to leave them, even though the running time is an economic 90-minutes, particularly since Allison and Tami are occasionally left on the fringes. Allison’s wrap-up, in fact, feels a little bit like an afterthought in comparison to her peers, though not to the point where her character seems entirely overlooked. Like I said, Birbiglia is such a graceful filmmaker that he weaves these stories together rather effortlessly and lets them all become powerful in their individual moments. He’s an accomplished, intelligent, and heartfelt filmmaker at heart. That will serve him well in the years to come.
Don’t Think Twice is another soul-affirming triumph for Birbiglia. Gentle and richly nuanced, it’s a compassionately-handled and wonderfully insightful look at this often-overlooked side of comedy, one that’s given vivid life through Birbiglia’s wondering, lingering camera. It should please anyone with a soul, especially an aching one. You don’t need to think twice about seeing it. Catch it while you can.
Don’t Think Twice (2016) Drinking Game
Take a Drink: every time someone does an impression.
Take a Drink: anytime someone contemplates about life out loud.
Take a Drink: every time Miles sleeps/attempts to sleep with someone.
Do a Shot: for every high-profile celebrity cameo.
Take a Drink: anytime a character is dying on stage.