By Will Mann
When I was in high school, one of my few reprieves from the stress of grades, cliques, and everything in between was my daily drive to school when I would listen to XM Comedy. Through this, I was introduced to a variety of comedians. One of them was Mike Birbiglia, whom I still consider to be one of my all-time favorites. Through his very casual tone, as well as the way he related his personal stories and anecdotes to the audience the way a friend at a party would, Birbiglia immediately endeared himself to me forever. I practically memorized his comedy albums like Two-Drink Mike, My Secret Public Journal Live, and Sleepwalk with Me (the latter of which was the inspiration for his first movie-directorial effort of the same name, which was released in 2012). I even got to see him perform his one-man show My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend in Norfolk, VA in 2012, and a second show, Thank God for Jokes, in my hometown of Richmond, VA in 2014. After the performance of Thank God for Jokes, a dream came true when I actually got to meet this comedian that had inspired me and made me laugh for so long.
Suffice to say, I consider to myself to not only be a fan, but a connoisseur of Birbiglia’s work. And when I met him in 2014, I asked him about a movie adaptation of My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend, which was rumored to be in development. He confirmed that he was working on a script, and hoping to shoot it soon. I was excited to see this funny source-material turned into Birbiglia’s next Hollywood project. With that in mind, Birbiglia’s latest film, Don’t Think Twice, in no way, shape or form resembles the film he promised me I was getting, but that hardly distracts from what a delightful, charming movie it is.
The premise follows a troupe of improv comedians in an underground improv group in New York City called The Commune. Jack (Keagan-Michael Key), Sam (Gillian Jacobs, best known for playing Britta on 6 seasons of Community), Miles (Birbiglia), Allison (Kate Micucci, of Garfunkel & Oates fame), Bill (Chris Gethard), and Lindsay (Tami Sagher) make up the performance group. The group enjoys moderate success, and remain close both socially and physically, as they all live either with or close to one another. But tensions arise when Jack and Sam, who are also a romantic couple, both receive the opportunity to audition for Weekend Live (a thinly-veiled Saturday Night Live stand-in). Jack auditions and gets a slot in the cast, while Sam chickens out right before she’s set to audition. Jack’s newfound fame drives a wedge into the group. Miles is jealous of him, especially considering that he has been in the improv business longer and because considers himself to be the person who taught Jack everything he knows. Allison, Bill, and Lindsay all submit writing samples hoping to be one of Weekend Live’s writers, to varying degrees of success. The emotional impact of his father’s failing health after a motorcycle accident starts to really effect Bill. Miles finds himself less attached to the group and more attached to a former girlfriend who has re-entered his life (Maggie Kemper), and who has asked him to help her raise the baby she’s pregnant with. And the former-lovebirds Jack and Sam now find each other at different very places in their lives than where they used to be. This formerly tight-knit group is forced to confront some harsh realities about their respective friendships and futures.
What I appreciate most about this movie is the way it balances a sense of humor, the harsh truths of life, and a worldview that, at times, can be both cynical and optimistic. Birbiglia, in both his standup and on NPR’s radio program This American Life, has often confronted uncomfortable topics to reveal the hilarious observations hiding inside. And first of all, I should say that Don’t Think Twice is really, really funny. I laughed a lot throughout it. It contains the wry wit and observational humor that so endeared me to Birbiglia’s stand-up. In a film that not only has comedic rapport between its characters, but also includes scenes of improv comedy, for most of the humor to not only to land, but to land as successfully as it does is a testament to the film, the actors, and the writing.
Out of the cast, Keagan Michael-Key impresses with his performance as a good-guy-turned-asshole. While he’s portrayed some of my favorite comedy characters of recent years, from substitute teacher Mr. Garvey (“Do you want to go war, Ba-la-keh? ‘Cuz we could go to war!”) to President Obama’s anger translator Luther, to my personal favorite, football players with names like Hingle McCringleberry, Dahistorious Lamystorius, X-Wing @Aliciousness, and Eqqsquizitine Buble-Schwinslow on his sketch comedy show Key & Peele, this is easily the most down-to-Earth performance I’ve ever seen him give. He is able to nail both the character’s friendly relatability and increasing arrogance as fame starts to get to his head. Similarly, I really like Jacobs in her role, and she brings a simultaneous spunkiness and a sadness to her character of Sam. (I’m just glad she managed to not Britta the role up. Community fans, where you at?) And while he’s utilized his naturally happy-go-lucky, somewhat-schluby real-life persona in most of his projects, I like that Birbiglia was able to bring a different kind of performance, a resentment and an anger to his role as unofficial-Commune leader Miles.
If I have any complaints, it would be that while the whole movie walks a tightrope walk of comedy and tragedy, the whole thing sways almost too easily into the melancholy. The subplot about Bill’s father’s health seems almost too melodramatic for a movie of this genre. Later in the movie, when tension is beginning split the group apart, it’s so intense and different than what we’ve already seen that it makes you wonder if the characters’ friendly comradery in the beginning was just an act. While this is very obviously about a movie about lost people trying to find themselves (hell, that could summarize a lot of my favorite movies), it has an inconsistent tone that unfortunately seems endemic to this particular kind of independent movie. (Looking at you, The Descendants.) While it isn’t egregious enough to ruin the movie, it is enough to make you question whether this is a comedy masquerading as drama, or a drama masquerading as comedy.
But despite that complaint, I feel like the theme of the movie could be taken from the name of Birbiglia’s one-man show: “Thank God for jokes.” The idea that you can get through hard times with humor and comradery seems to be the main takeaway of this movie. It’s a movie that charms you because of the chemistry of the cast and the crispness of the writing even as it forces you to look at uncomfortable realities. If anything, I would have preferred if they went even farther with the premise, and brought in characters like struggling stand-up comedians or poorly-paid comedy writers into the mix. But as it stands, Don’t Think Twice is delightful, well-written, well-acted movie that will satisfy fans of comedy, indie movies, and of course, Mike Birbiglia.