‘Don’t Think Twice’ Review: Mike Birbiglia Charms on Both Sides of the Camera

This comedy about competition in the improv world borrows its central idea from the Morrissey song, “We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful”

“Don’t Think Twice” is a candid film about the division between enthusiasm and talent, the unbridled passion for an art form versus one’s actual ability. Within Mike Birbiglia‘s latest moving and tender directorial effort, the art in question is improvisational comedy.

True to the comedy scenes scattered across the country today, gifts within this fictional troupe vary. Birbiglia plays Miles, the ringleader of the group that had two seconds of fame a decade prior when he auditioned for “Weekend Live.” Like Kevin Costner in “Bull Durham” regaling his fellow minor-league teammates with tales from the MLB, Miles touts how he once, long ago, almost made it on national television. Of course, with those stories comes a litany of excuses why it never quite panned out for him. Immediately, Birbiglia manages to ground the film in reality: Disappointment is universal.

Miles’ partners in comedy crime — including Keegan-Michael Key, Gillian Jacobs, Chris Gethard, Kate Micucci and Tami Sagher — listen to these stories with detached amusement, sympathizing with their friend while being sure that what happened to him could never happen to them. They’re going to succeed, dammit; they’re destined for stardom, with lofty ambitions that won’t be thwarted by time, laziness or their mundane daytime jobs. No, no, no.

“The 20s are about hope,” Gethard’s character muses, “but the 30s are about realizing how dumb it was to hope.” That same hope bubbling inside their worn-down performance space dissipates when Jack (Key) lands a recurring role on “Weekend Live.” Suddenly the solidarity of working toward their collective goal is gone. One of them made it, leaving the rest behind.

don't-think-twice_JacobsThat bit of success proves to be both the undoing of the commune and the underpinning of “Don’t Think Twice.” Rarely does contemporary cinema so bluntly (and accurately) depict envy in its most insidious iteration. What Birbiglia presents in his second directorial effort is not the type of theatrically capitalistic envy we see in “Wolf of Wall Street.” It’s about the vexing confluence of emotions upon seeing their friends excel while they stagnate, a toxic amalgamation of happiness and jealousy.

Birbiglia manages to deftly capture the guilt of it all (“How dare you feel anything bit overjoyed about the recent triumph of your friend?”), while acknowledging that that guilt is inescapable, part and parcel of befriending those in your field of work. Soon enough the troupe begins to resent Jack’s newfound fame. “He’s no longer funny,” they insist. He’s sold out. Ditched the true art form that is improv for commercial comfort, no longer invited to perform in the troupe.

But the film isn’t entirely one-sided here, either. Key does an excellent job of crafting a character who must grapple with his burgeoning career and waning friendships. It’s only a matter of days before his friends ask Jack to passing along their scripted sketches to producers on the show. With the exception of his equally funny girlfriend Samantha (Jacobs), they all long for what he has. In turn, these relationships become transactional, largely motivated by someone’s agenda to get ahead.

There’s nuance in the ways Birbiglia writes these conversations: No matter who approaches Jack (and they all do), neither party appears completely calculating. What the film nails is how increasingly difficult it is not only to make art, but also to make a living doing it. Everyone is hungry and desperate and tired of lifelessly ambling around in their nine-to-five jobs. Eventually there’s a breaking point inside us all, and “Don’t Think Twice” is, essentially, documenting the immediate before and after of that point.

The resolution to all this vain madness resolves itself a bit more cleanly than it probably has to (or would), as though Birbiglia amended the old adage “all good things must come to an end” to “all good things must come to an end, unless there are more good things right around the corner.” Still, “Don’t Think Twice” is an impressive feat on all accounts. For a performer whose greatest virtue is his layered, detailed storytelling, Birbiglia has made a surprisingly impassioned love letter to improv comedy. Like the “yes, and…” art form itself, the movie shoots from the hip, ducks and dives unexpectedly, and excitingly. Characters evolve and devolve unpredictably, because of course they do.

In voice-over, Samantha explains that improv is the equivalent to building a plane while it’s already in flight, an act of love that is “not meant to last.” Its creation is spontaneous; its existence, ephemeral. Fine, OK. It’s a good thing, then, we have “Don’t Think Twice” for posterity.