Sunday, August 14, 2016

Review: "Don't Think Twice"

When I was around 20 and 21 years old, I went almost every weekend to an improv comedy show in my native Orlando. I was taking a break from college to make money so I could go back, so the $7 admission price was a good fit with my entertainment budget. Sometimes the group hit the top floor, laughs all around, and occasionally the performance struggled to get off the ground. But I always enjoyed the dynamics of the form -- a blend of stand-up comedy, acting technique and traditional theater.

It was pretty obvious to anyone who went to the show regularly that there were a couple of standouts. And nobody was surprised when they went on to productive showbiz careers. Wayne Brady is a well-known stage and television actor/singer who briefly had his own talk show; Joel McCrary had a funny bit on "Seinfeld" and went on to appear in "American Beauty" and the "Princess Diaries" movies, among others.

I occasionally pondered what it must have been like for the members of their old troupe to see them onscreen. I'm sure like any human being, they felt a combination of joy and envy. 'Why them and not me?' they think. Or they wonder how a group effort that they all had a hand in creating ended up capturing attention for one of their number, but not the others.

"Don't Think Twice" is essentially the cinematic embodiment of that predicament. It's written and directed by Mike Birbiglia, who's known mostly for his stand-up routine and comedy specials; a few years ago he spun off his one-man show "Sleepwalk with Me" into a narrative film. His shows blend laughter and sadness, with a great deal of insight about how people think and act in the real world when they don't think anyone's looking.

Birbiglia is a wonderful storyteller, so it makes sense that he approached a movie about an improv comedy group with the intention of giving all six of them equal screen time and treatment. I'm not sure if that was the best move. Because just as in any endeavor, some people are more interesting than others; some are going to make it big and some are not.

There's also an intrinsic melancholy to a tale about a tight-knit group that comes unraveled when one of them, Jack (Keegan-Michael Key), gets called up to "Weekend Live," a not-at-all obscured version of "Saturday Night Live." This causes a great deal of tension and accusations, especially from Miles (Birbiglia), the oldest guy and founder of their group, The Commune.

He essentially taught all the others how to do improv, and now they're a family with him as the goofy patriarch. Miles tried out for "Weekend Live" a dozen years earlier himself and didn't make the cut. He's young enough (36) to have a lot of pathways in life still open to him, but old enough to store up resentments and self-doubt.

Gillian Jacobs plays Sam, who is probably the best natural performer of the group and also Jack's girlfriend. She herself was called in to audition for the show at the same time, but wigged out and blew it off. Now they're stuck in a situation where he's gone all the time to work on this big high-profile TV show, and she's perfectly happy performing in The Commune, even if it means she has to work a crappy day job.

Chris Gethard has a poignant presence as Bill, the resident straight man and nebbishy nice guy. His old man is rich so he doesn't really worry about money, but there's the ever-present sense that his dad considers him a failure. Your 20s is all about giving it all for your dreams, he observes, while in your 30s you realize how much of that time and energy was wasted.

Kate Micucci is Allison, a bit of a wallflower who had a great start as a cartoonist that never panned out, so she segued into improv. Tami Sagher plays Lindsay, who also performs out of a sense of love rather than financial need, yet often seems like the most devoted member.

I immensely enjoyed spending time with these people, as they go through the episodic routine of getting ready to go out onstage and function as a team. This has carried over into their personal relationships, where they can't ever "turn it off," making jokes even while kissing (Jack and Sam) or dealing with a serious family medical crisis.

Their improv works as a circular arrangement, but people need to eventually break out of that loop and go somewhere else, or their lives suffer.

"Don't Think Twice" is a story about people reaching that point of departure in their lives, professionally and personally. It's one they probably would have come to soon enough, but Jack's sudden success acts as the tripwire that sets things in motion.

Like Birbiglia's other work, it's funny, a little depressing, and a lot smart.


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