At one point in Mike Birbiglia’s DON’T THINK TWICE, a character opines that your 20s are for hope, and your 30s are for realizing how dumb that hope was. Yet this finely observed tragi-comedy of art, commerce, and finding happiness takes a more compassionate view of its characters, an improv group that is having the next phase of their lives more or less forced upon them.
The group is The Commune, founded by Miles (Birbiglia), a talented teacher of improv, and a fair performer of same who has had a student go one to fame and fortune on Weekend Live, the sketch comedy show that beams out live to the world on Saturday night, and is about to watch another do the same. Virtually at the same time that Miles and his group learn that a producer from that show will be in the audience scouting for talent, they also learn that their theater, Improv for America, will be closing to make way for a Trump building, leaving them on the cusp of optimism and despair. It’s not the only change that is barreling down the metaphorical road at them. One member (scene-stealing sad-sack Chris Gethard) who spends his days handing out hummus samples will face a father’s devastating accident, two others will face their fears with an audition for that very show, another (pushy and put-upon Tami Sagher) will kvetch about being fired from a job she doesn’t need, while another (naif neurotic Kate Micucci) will be brought up short about a graphic novel nine years in the making and counting. As for Miles, his habit of dating his 20-something students will be brought into perspective when an old friend (Maggie Kemper) from high school drops in, forcing him to look at his life through new eyes.
It’s testing time, and as everyone’s perspective changes with their circumstances, the group’s lovebirds Sarah and Jack (Gillian Armstrong, Keegan-Michael Key) find an impasse about what constitutes happiness. Their poignant struggle to regain balance after a seismic shift is all the more profoundly moving because their genuine feelings for each other are never in doubt. Armstrong and Key evoke tenderness and uncertainty, longing and resentment with delicacy that brings home the gut-wrenching immediacy that each is experiencing. The bravado of jokes that only the best of friends can make at a time of tragedy to reinforce a tight-knit camaraderie; the subtle, and subtly growing, distance between the group and the one who has finally gotten the elusive big break; and Miles finally admitting to himself that he was never “just inches” away from his own big break plays out with fumbling insecurity and a wicked sense of humor. When the emotional dam finally breaks, it’s almost a relief.
Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living, DON’T THINK TWICE translates that into a bittersweet, insightful consideration of the value of the unexamined dream, and does so with a dash of impudent wit. The metaphor of the rules of improv as rules for life never devolve into preciousness, and neither do the uncomfortable situations that clear the way for these characters even as they clear their minds. We may squirm in our seats as hecklers heckle, or a hard truth is told, but watching these characters with all their flaws cope, or not, is a tour de force of filmmaking.