Friday, August 26, 2016

DON’T THINK TWICE: An Improv Comedy Troupe May Not Be Alright

Now playing at an indie art house near me:

DON’T THINK TWICE (Dir. Mike Birbiglia, 2016)

eing a big Bob Dylan fan, the title of this film originally made me think of the legendary folk rock troubadour’s 1962 classic “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright,” but writer/director Mike Birbiglia wants us to relate the phrase to the rules of improv comedy.

Birbiglia, in the film’s brief yet informative intro, teaches that the three basic rules of improv are: “Say yes,” “it’s all about the group,” and “don’t think.” Birbiglia quotes improv guru Del Close to explain that there are no mistakes, that a player should “fall, and then figure out what to do on the way down.”

In his second directorial effort (his first was 2012’s charming yet a bit alarmingly autobiographical SLEEPWALK WITH ME), which he also wrote and produced, Birbiglia plays Miles, the 36-year old founder and longtime member of a Brooklyn-based improv troupe named The Commune.

The six member team is made up of the mostly recognizable faces of Kate Micucci (Garfunkel & Oates) as Allison, Tami Sagher as Lindsay, Chris Gethard as Bill, Gillian Jacobs (Community, Love) as Samantha, and Keegan-Michael Key (Key & Peele, KEANU) as Jack.

When Jack and Samantha, who are dating, get an audition for “Weekend Live,” the Saturday Night Live surrogate in the film’s world, it causes a riff between the players, particularly galling Miles, who claims that he had been “within inches” of getting a gig on the show back in 2003.

Jack gets cast, but his girlfriend Samantha freaks out and skips her audition, telling Jack that she was late and they didn’t let her in. The other Commune members hope that Jack can help get them hired as writers, but his new writing partner played by Adam Pally (Happy Endings, The Mindy Project) tells him to never, ever talk to the producer about his funny friends, advising that for his first year on the show “just don’t get fired.”

To add to the troupe’s troubles, their venue, The Improv for America Theater, is due to be closed in five weeks. Funnily enough, The Commune is told that another Trump building is going to go up in its place which leads to a bunch of Trump impressions (mostly variations on his catchphrase “you’re fired”) - notably, Birbiglia stressed on a recent guest appearance on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah that the film was written years before Trump’s hellish campaign that we’re inexplicably still dealing with was mounted.

So as Jack settles somewhat uneasily into his new job, his former Commune cohorts try to deal with change. Miles gets reacquainted with an old high school crush (Maggie Kemper), Bill stresses over his father being hospitalized for a motorcycle accident, Lindsay self-medicates with pot when she’s not in therapy paid for by her rich parents, Allison frets over finishing her long gestating graphic novel, and Samantha gets sadder and sadder over the fact that things are changing as she wanted her days with the troupe to go on forever.

Then things get really dicey when they see Jack reproducing one of their collaborative sketches on “Weekend Live” with that week’s celebrity host (Ben Stiller as himself).

Birbiglia’s film is a well observed look at what it feels like when a member of an established group leaves for greener pastures. It could serve as a theatrical version of the 1992 Morrissey song “We Hate It when Our Friends Become Successful.” It gives us an idea of what it may have been like when Will Ferrell was plucked from the Groundlings (the LA-based sketch comedy troupe and school) for SNL, or any number of examples of comedy stars that left their fellow players behind for bigger things.

When Gethard’s Bill says “I feel like your 20’s are all about hope, and your 30’s are about realizing how dumb it was to hope,” it’s an extremely relatable realization that’s not alone as the movie is packed with such relatable realizations.

It may be a small indie film, but it’s about dreaming big even if it feels like the world is telling you to move on. Birbiglia’s Miles and the rest of the ensemble know they are aging past the point where their dreams can be fulfilled, but they also know that letting go is the hardest part. And it effectively questions whether friendships can survive such transitions.

DON’T THINK TWICE is a comedy drama gem that doesn’t have a wasted moment or miscalculated line in its perfectly tight 92 minute running time. It makes good on the promise of Birbiglia’s debut, SLEEPWALK WITH ME, as it also plays upon the pathos of the difficult world of damaged people trying to make an anonymous audience laugh.

It wraps up nicely on a note of hope too, with Roger Neill, who provided the score, performing a touching instrumental piano version of the famous tune that shares the film’s name to accompany the end credits. So it appears that Birbiglia’s sweetly bitter love letter to improv has something to do with the Dylan song after all.

More later...

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