On stages at Second City, Upright Citizens Brigade, iO, and more, writers and performers hone the art of comedy improv, chasing funny ideas into the unknown with the hope of arriving somewhere worthwhile. For some the goal is to create their own improv group; for others, the form is just the road to movies and TV. However, failure is also a very real outcome, and it’s a reality superbly captured in comedian Mike Birbiglia’s sophomore directorial effort, “Don’t Think Twice.” Following six New York performers on the cusp of breaking out, played by Birbiglia, Gillian Jacobs, Chris Gethard, Tami Sagher, Kate Micucci, and Keegan-Michael Key, it fashions an entertaining, thoughtful portrait of friends in crisis when success is near.
The film progresses the narrative and technical aims Birbiglia targeted with his first, “Sleepwalk With Me,” only this time he’s opened the floor up to a talented acting ensemble (as well as a helpful touch, one predicts, from returning “This American Life” producer Ira Glass). Opening with a brief history of improv and the rituals that go with it, Birbiglia introduces The Commune, a long-running group performing in a UCB-style theatre. Drawing packed audiences every week, yet with little return off the five-dollar tickets they sell, the group also sticks to tradition in format: survey the audience for bad recent experiences, and then reenact and deconstruct the events together.
Ported straight over structurally from Birbiglia’s real-life improv performances, a tone of authenticity is struck right away — jokes actually land, and the group’s pre-show nerves and rituals translate immensely. That tone continues in Birbiglia’s allowance to let the more varied perspectives of working in comedy emerge, minimizing his role as Miles, the elder statesman and founder of The Commune, who also beds his Improv 101 students with regularity.
In an excellent, involving turn, Gillian Jacobs plays Samantha, a former comedy fan turned improv performer who cherishes her spot on The Commune, while also struggling to match the professional drive of boyfriend and fellow group member Jack (Key). Among the other members, Bill (Gethard, a standout) has to handle his relationship with his slowly ailing father in Philadelphia; Lindsay (Sagher) escapes in a haze of weed rather than confront her controlling parents; and Allison (Micucci), meek yet essential, tries to complete an illustrated book she’s been working on for nine years.
Meanwhile, the presence of “Weekend Live” looms over the Commune’s every move. A faithful and low-key satirical version of “SNL” (with some amusing cameo hosts), it spurned Miles once, as he still recounts how he came “inches away” from nailing his audition for the show. But as news hits that a “Weekend Live” rep attended a Commune performance and one of the group scores a role on the show, a storm of jealousy, envy, and confusion descends over the group of friends for the first time.
Visually, Birbiglia stages “Don’t Think Twice” with heaps more confidence than in ‘Sleepwalk,’ working with DP Joe Anderson in skillfully drawing out the dark beauty of improv clubs and nighttime New York. The editing is also incredibly tight for a film filled with such casual back-and-forth and riffing. Every scene plays to the overall tempo: improv scenes linger in a different shade to the more structured gags, while Birbiglia expertly handles one prolonged silence perched between emotional and darkly funny.
The cast are uniformly suited to the dramatic turns of the script: Both Key and Jacobs utterly nail several emotional beats not often asked of them, while Gethard, Micucci, and Sagher imbue their characters with comedic sincerity that adds nice tags to every scene. They can also deliver some of the film’s most cutting observations, such as when Gethard as Bill wonders if without his place in comedy, he’s simply another loser working the sample trays at a grocery store for cash.
In moments like these, Birbiglia never allows the comedy and showbiz world to get too self-pitying, sticking instead to the human element of every conflict so it stays compelling. Auditions, call backs, table reads and Improv 101 — these are elements but not the substance of “Don’t Think Twice.” The substance belongs to the cast’s performances and Birbiglia’s writing, which bring an honest and sharply drawn account of the eternal questions of ego, friendship, and sacrifice in the comedy world of Birbiglia’s accomplished and very funny film. [A]