Review: Mike Birbiglia dots the i in improv teamwork within “Don’t Think Twice”
We're told as young boys and girls to dream big. Be the best you that you can be! Whether you want to become president of the United States, a professional athlete, a movie star or anything and everything in between, in whatever career may pay you enough to support a family and take care of you into retirement. That's the American Dream, isn't it? Or something like that.
But life intervenes.
It turns out we cannot all live out the same dream.
As Bill (played by Chris Gethard) realizes at one point during Mike Birbiglia's masterful new movie, Don't Think Twice, "Your 20s are all about hope. Your 30s are all about realizing how dumb it was to hope."
That's a far-too pessimistic take on growing up.
The reality: No matter what profession you choose, you'll find yourself grappling with how to balance your individual ambitions within those of your co-workers and colleagues who make up your team. Some will move up the ladder quicker than others. Some will never move up. You'll face your own insecurities, ego and jealousy. You'll have to choose between resentment and gratitude when dealing with the consequences of your personal and professional lives.
Birbiglia just happens to capture this so truly, madly and deeply within the confines of improvisational comedy.
He wrote and directed Don't Think Twice, and spent the two years leading up to its release both performing with star improvisers in New York City and obsessively live-Tweeting Saturday Night Live. Birbiglia started out in improv at Georgetown University (with the likes of Nick Kroll and John Mulaney), and the improv scenes that play out in Don't Think Twice (filmed on the same NYC stage where he has mounted two of his one-man shows, "Sleepwalk With Me" and "Thank God For Jokes") find his cinematic improv troupe mining audience suggestions for big laughs. It's much akin to the Mike Birbiglia's Dream shows you might have seen at the UCB or Magnet theaters in NYC.
Case in point. Roll the clip!
Keegan-Michael Key, Gillian Jacobs, Kate Micucci, Chris Gethard, Tami Sagher and Birbiglia play members of The Commune, an improv troupe that has performed together for more than a decade, long enough to generate great, easy chemistry together and sold-out audiences of eager fans week-in and week-out, yet also long enough for them separately and together begin to wonder what their end game is.
They think it's a gig on "Weekend Live" (such an obvious stand-in for Saturday Night Live, complete with a hilarious performance by Birbiglia's frequent collaborator Seth Barrish in a parody of Lorne Michaels).
Two of The Commune's members receive invites to audition. Only one gets in. How will the group dynamics change? Do they have to change? Improv, after all, has trained them to support one another.
Birbiglia said his wife pointed out how improv groups expect teamwork among individuals who may find themselves on completely separate and unequal career tracks. “My wife said, ‘Your stand-up friends are very combative and always making fun of each other – in a fun way, but still. And your improv friends are so much more supportive and it’s all about the group, it’s all about saying yes and agreeing. The irony is that some of these people in your improv group are so successful that they’re literally millionaires. And some of them are barely paying their rent on their shared, five-person, one-bedroom in Bushwick.’ It was a very astute observation. I thought it was an interesting premise for a movie–the idea that in an improv group, everyone is equal until they’re not. The principals of art are like socialism, and life is capitalism. Not everything is fair. I started writing a screenplay based on that.”
In the movie, Miles (Birbiglia) already has seen one of his former group members gone on to great success, while he continues to teach improv classes and try to bed his female students. He and the other members -- Allison, Bill and Lindsay -- all hope to get carried along for the ride, vying with and against each for "Weekend Live" writing gigs that may or may not even exist.
Everyone is desperate to move forward except for Samantha -- Jacobs, in such a star-making turn that you'll immediately want to see whatever she's in after this film -- who tells Key's Jack: "I like my life how it is right now."
His reply? "You can't do improv forever, OK?" "We have to hop to the next lily pad."
"But I like this lily pad!"
They're also forced to confront their futures as their home theater closes (thanks to Donald Trump, no less, written into the script before his presidential candidacy), and as one of their members loses a loved one.
What's really important to you in the end? Is it fame? Is it fortune? Is it (spoiler alert) neither of those things?
If you're involved in comedy in any shape or form, everything in Don't Think Twice hits so close to home you'll feel as if it's a documentary.
Key already has been through this sort of thing before for real, jumping from Second City Detroit to MADtv, even if he only found the recognition he deserved from TV critics and American audiences once he and Jordan Peele made their own sketch comedy series for Comedy Central years later (and after Peele got passed over by SNL).
Sagher was the youngest person to make the mainstage at The Second City in Chicago, and her career has taken her more behind the scenes as a producer and executive producer on hit TV shows including 30 Rock, How I Met Your Mother, Girls and Inside Amy Schumer.
And Gethard literally has lived this movie. Some plot points and dialogue came straight from his life and times. Although as Gethard told me in a recent episode of my podcast, Last Things First, his real-life friendship with Bobby Moynihan has survived and thrived since Moynihan got SNL while Gethard didn't. His group, The Stepfathers, also saw Zach Woods leave for The Office (and now seen on Silicon Valley and in Ghostbusters), and has weathered comings, goings, and even helped Gethard find his own community and TV success.
Don't Think Twice expanded from five theaters to 55 cinemas last weekend, and still ranked 15th nationwide in box-office receipts. Find a screening of Don't Think Twice near you. You'll be glad you did.