'Don't Think Twice' Is a Frustratingly Accurate Exploration of Selfishness
Mike Birbiglia's second feature maintains audience engagement despite its frequently unlikable characters
Attending a college in the middle of rural Ohio proved problematic when I became a film major. The closest town's theater was difficult to access without a personal vehicle, but I managed to convince my parents to let me keep the family mini-van on campus sophomore year. When the nearby cinema, which only screened the most widely released projects, didn't suffice, my friends and I looked elsewhere -- one of them happened to be obsessed with stand-up comedian Mike Birbiglia when his debut film, Sleepwalk With Me, was released.
We stuffed ourselves into my Honda Odyssey, and made the more than 50-mile drive to Columbus. Though a memorable night, I returned six hours later with mixed feelings about the movie. As a 19-year-old, it was difficult to relate to Birbiglia's middle-aged crises, but I respected the authenticity and relished his dark humor.
Nearly four years later, I consequently approached my screening of his sophomore effort, Don't Think Twice, with mild anxiety. The film follows six improv artists in New York City, known together as The Commune, who desire to perform on the late-night show Weekend Live (a jab throughout at Saturday Night Live). When one is finally cast, each member suffers through a character-driven crisis, causing the group to fracture, and threatening its existence altogether. The film stars Birbiglia himself, as well as Keegan-Michael Key (Keanu, Key and Peele) and Gillian Jacobs (Community, Girls). Chris Gethard, Kate Micucci and Tami Sagher round out the ensemble.
Birbiglia makes clear the questions with which he's reckoning from the onset with a monologue from Sam (Jacobs) that explains the three universal rules of improv comedy: say yes, it's all about the group, and don't think. The filmmaker stems drama by transferring these stage laws to real life and then breaking them. The most striking is Birbiglia's divergence from the second rule, as his exploration of selfishness is so exactingly executed that it becomes challenging to side with some of the characters; this is a cold world where everyday people masquerade affections for others as tactics of self-preservation. Though each character exhibits this over arching theme to varying degrees, it unfortunately does not exclusively run inversely to each character's likability, but also corollary to their screen time.
This is most true of Miles (Birbiglia), who's at his most sympathetic in a brief moment of self-observation: [paraphrased from memory] "When you look at me, I know what you see, but I want to be better than that." Scenes like these are few and far between, as he is too often oblivious to his self-serving nature, and his development suffers for it, but Miles is not the only one who fails to truly evolve by the end.
Jack (Key) spends most of his screen time ignoring personal reflection while ascending to friendship-ending fame, or suffocating the only remaining character that receives equal screen time to the aforementioned -- his girlfriend, Sam (Jacobs). Therefore, Don't Think Twice finds itself in a room with a claustrophobically low ceiling, and the writer-director still appears a film or two away from discovering the tool in his bag that will break through it.
Of course, there are plenty of reasons to believe that he will. Sam showcases a slew of upbeat characters that become tiresome just in time for an audition with Weekend Life, when her decision not to attend -- a disobedience of the first rule of improv -- causes her to reevaluate her dreams. What follows is a revealing of insecurities and doubts in relatable layers that satisfy increasingly throughout, dissolving her façade of happiness to reveal a conflicted core. In just 92 minutes, Jacobs provides a character arc more rewarding than the aforementioned and finds the bridge from beloved NBC sitcom character to complex film role, last crossed this successfully by Steve Carell -- hopefully, she explores the newfound territory in years to come.
Bill (Gethard) is also rather enjoyable, but his lack of screen time is disappointing, even if justifiable; he struggles to process a death, and is something of a sedated sore thumb in this world full of character, vitality and nuanced life. With her storm of self-worth issues, Allison (Micucci) finds herself similarly pushed to the periphery, in part because she's too close of a retread to Sam, though she would be more likely to be found punishing herself than in a state of melancholic reflection. Rationalizing the underdevelopment of Lindsay (Sagher), a middle-aged stoner living with her parents, proves more confounding; the hope here is that Birbiglia's never been a truly depressed pothead, and thus mines a shallower well for material.
The result is a bovarysme that crescendos before crashing into a final scene that so inexplicably spoon-feeds into the credits it becomes difficult not to question the idiosyncratic genuineness of the 85 minutes before it. Don't Think Twice's weapon of choice, then, is a double-edged sword: stimulating from both sides, but guaranteed to provide as much pleasure as it does pain. Its greatest achievement, though, is its refusal to let the viewer abide by the third rule of improv: don't think. Birbiglia breaks his ultimate rule and transcends the title in a film that promises to have viewers thinking about it multiple times in the days that follow.