Hidden Gems: Don't Think Twice
By Kyle Lee
May 15, 2017
Writer/director Mike Birbiglia’s 2016 film Don’t Think Twice is the exact kind of movie the Hidden Gems column was made for. It’s a small, low-key, almost bittersweet look at the life of a group of performers in the improv comedy scene in New York City. The movie has a lot of comedy in it, both in the kind that’s funny and in the kind that we observe the group performing. Overall it’s also kind of a drama, but not really. It’s one of those great types of movies that reflects life in the most human and beautiful way. There’s friendship and love and jealousy and supportiveness and misfits-making-a-family and all other kinds of wonderful themes and behaviors.
We first see the improv group The Commune backstage getting ready for a show in the small theater they rent. Miles (Birbiglia) seems like a kind of leader of the group, though it’s Sam (Gillian Jacobs) who emcees and takes suggestions from the audience. Sam’s boyfriend Jack (Keegan-Michael Key) is the charismatic “star quality” type performer of the crew, while Allison (Kate Micucci), Lindsay (Tami Sagher), and Bill (Chris Gethard) fill out the rest of the scenes with able supporting work. But, of course, in the world of improv, there are no stars, because it’s not about the individual, it’s about the team and the overall performance and success of the show. That is, until word comes one night that a producer from Weekend Live (the SNL stand-in for the movie) will be in the audience, scouting for talent.
We see what happens to the group as it begins to splinter when Jack gets the gig on Weekend Live. He is raised to a whole new bar of performance, one which the Commune gathers around the TV to hate-watch every week, simultaneously proud of Jack, jealous of his success, and disgusted at the lowest common denominator comedy. Jack, meanwhile, now has to navigate the cutthroat world of “me-first” comedy that’s totally antithetical to the community that got him there.
Miles becomes bitter, because he was Jack’s teacher. He should have that success; he taught Jack everything he knows. Sam starts to see her relationship with Jack (lovingly handled in touching moments of subtlety by Birbiglia as a director) slowly crumbling away as Jack’s work schedule and their conflicting ideas and ambitions clash. Jack isn’t trying to leave behind his cohorts, in fact he’s willing to stick his neck out to try and at least get the others in the group onto the show as writers, despite repeatedly being told not to do that by those behind the scenes of the new show. Still, resentments and tensions rise, and relationships are put to the test, sometimes even during the performance of the show.
Just the story of Jack, Sam, and Miles is enough to make a good movie about, but Birbiglia as a writer also doesn’t skimp on characterizations of the other three in the group. Bill, Allison, and Lindsay are all given wonderfully written subplots so that we know who they are (and all three actors give really terrific and heartfelt performances too). They aren’t there just to fill out the scenery. These are all real people we come to know over the 92-minute runtime. And this is really solid writing, not just the “give each person one defining characteristic so that the audience can easily keep up” type mainstream comedy writing we’re so used to. It’s a wonderful ensemble of characters, each brought to amazing life by the cast.