Don’t Think Twice (2016)

Directed by Mike Birbiglia


I loved Don’t Think Twice when I first saw it about a year ago.  I love improv, I love Mike Birbiglia, and I love so many of the actors in this movie.  It ends on a sentimental note, and it worked for me.  Watching this a second time, though, I was struck by how uneven, awkwardly paced, and poorly plotted it felt.

But that said, I still enjoyed this movie.  I think it’s something that, to me, feels like it could be so much more.  There are so many great actors and performances, and it’s at times a very funny movie, but it tries too hard to be sentimental.  These are characters who thrive together (some admit that all they have is the improv group), and by the end we’ve seen them thoroughly pick each other apart, driven by jealousy and the pressures of time to turn their lifeblood into a profitable career before it’s too late.

The conflict starts when one of them, Jack (Keegan Michael Key) gets an audition call for Weekend Live, a comedic program intended to be Saturday Night Live that is so very much the same thing that I can’t figure out why they didn’t just go ahead and call it Saturday Night Live.  It’s not a big deal, but with how much Weekend Live participates in the story, it really bugged me that we couldn’t just call it Saturday Night Live.  It’s like how in every zombie movie the characters have to find a new term for the zombies because they, for some reason, can’t just call them zombies.

When Jack gets SNL (I’m calling it that from now on), the rest of the group starts to go into a tailspin.  Miles (Birbiglia) is full of jealousy.  He was Jack’s teacher, and he’s stuck in the past, not just in his story about how he was “inches” away from the show, but also in his ongoing series of one nights stands with his students.  Sam (Gillian Jacobs), Jack’s girlfriend and fellow troupe member, also receives an audition call for SNL, but she chooses not to go, instead choosing her life as currently constructed rather than taking a necessary leap forward.

A consistent theme of the movie seems to be about time, and its an effective concept.  These are characters all stuck in the past in someway, playing a game that isn’t very lucrative.  The idea behind improv, beyond simply enjoying it, is to turn it into a career.  The question is whether or not improv and the group is enough on its own or is it all a stepping stone to something bigger?

When Jack gets SNL, everyone else tries to reach out to him to have their writing packet sent through him to the SNL boss, a Lorne Michaels parody named Timothy.  Timothy was so strange, an accumulation of stories I’ve heard about Michaels which likely don’t reflect the actual person that I had to wonder what Michaels himself thought of the representation of him.

So every character is desperate for something else.  If their improv group is a marriage, then they’re all getting something on the side.  Sam is the only one entirely devoted to the group because she likes the group, she likes the lifestyle, and she wants to cling onto the past as much as any of them.

As a story about time, this movie is very much about its ensemble cast growing up and evolving.  It’s basically a coming of age story in that way.  Jack gets SNL, and while he struggles a bit there, he starts to come into his own.  Another member of the group, Lindsay (Tami Sagher) gets a job on the SNL writing staff, Allison (Kate Micucci) finally publishes a comic book she had long been working on, Sam breaks it off with Jack for a reason I can’t quite figure out, but it’s meant to highlight her break up from the past, Bill (Chris Gethard) opens up a new venue for the group to perform after their last one had to close down, and Miles, 8 months later when the film ends, is helping to raise a kid that’s not his with an old flame, basically someone who is age appropriate.

But the story is so focused on getting these characters to a point of this happy reunion, all having overcome some internal demon, that it seems to skip a few steps along the way.  Allison, for example, is almost invisible throughout the story, and her comic book dream feels like an effort to just give her character something resembling a character arc.  It’s mentioned once to point out that she’s not working on it, and then in the end we see her mail in the final draft.

There is a lot of moving from one thing to another without considering the emotional impact or importance of each scene, but at the same time there are some scenes that try to do too much.  Sam breaks up with Jack onstage during what must be the most awkward performance, and it’s a scene that’s too sentimental.  I didn’t care that they broke up, and yet they do so in a breathy moment, their faces only inches apart.  The audience must have been flabbergasted.  It’s a moment similar to one in The Big Sick in which Kumail opens up onstage.  In that movie, though, his friends rag on him later, as comics and improvisers do, pointing out how he bombed the audition.

It felt like this movie needed more of that, its characters commenting on each other in a way that would diminish the sentimentality but which would feel more honest.  And the best moments of the movie do this.  After the group visits Bill’s father in the hospital, they all mock (playfully) the way he says “thank you.”  It might seem callous, and they address it, but these are improvisers who “yes and” everything.

It just felt like this movie needed to end on a note like that rather than the overly sentimental final scene.  Granted, as I said earlier, that scene worked on me the first time I saw it.

So if you want a feel good story, well this is a pretty good one to pick.  I was hoping for more, I think, particularly after Birbiglia’s 2012 movie Sleepwalk With Me, a movie well worth the viewing.

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