Mike Birbiglia’s second feature, Don’t Think Twice, is a bleak ensemble drama that charts the dissolution of a warm improv-comedy ensemble. It’s funny and inspiring and harsh and depressing. It’s steeped in existential dread. I don’t know how Birbiglia pulled it off, but he gets the minutiae of an improv-comedy show thrillingly right while using the form to build a kind of allegory of the corrosive effects of capitalism. Not that he’s uncool enough to use the word capitalism.
Well, he does call the troupe the Commune. They’re a school based in a slightly rundown lower-Manhattan theater where tickets are cheap and the smallish audiences responsive. Here, improv is not just an art but also a design for living, with Chicago pioneer Del Close invoked as a kind of Confucius. In a prologue, the cast enunciates three basic improv tenets. Onstage, you say “Yes, and …” to whatever someone else throws out. You always make yourself subservient to the group. And you “don’t think,” because that makes you tight and anxious instead of free-spirited.
It’s not a perfect life. Improv teacher Miles (Birbiglia) tries to bed his students, and he barely manages to suppress his bitterness at being passed over for a TV show called Weekend Live, which except for the name is a ringer for that other weekend live show. The Commune members gather to watch it, not much liking it but salivating to audition. Then something happens: Handsome hot dog Jack (Keegan-Michael Key), with his killer Obama impression, gets called in to audition, and so does his pretty girlfriend, Sam (Gillian Jacobs). The others have to smile and say congratulations.
An unusually soulful stand-up, Birbiglia is obviously intimate with the anger that festers in comedy clubs when people like him or Louis C.K. or Jim Gaffigan become stars. (Listen to Marc Maron’s podcast for regular explorations of that anger.) You don’t see many movies — which generally center on winners — about the hell of being left behind. But it suffuses Don’t Think Twice. Now you see the characters (the others are played by Chris Gethard, Kate Micucci of Garfunkel and Oates, and writer Tami Sagher) onstage, rushing in to get one another’s back, conjuring miracles out of thin air, achieving a fleeting but magical communion. And then you see them backstage, crushed — afraid of poverty, afraid of failure in front of their parents, afraid of nonexistence. And there’s something else: After many years, they’re finally being evicted from their theater.
With his glancing touch, Birbiglia gives the movie a ’70s vibe — I thought of Paul Mazursky, especially Next Stop, Greenwich Village. The cast is flawless. Key captures the ambivalence of an obvious star for whom stardom is both a lure and a source of shame. Gethard is the smart but increasingly morose boy-man in a spiral of failure. Jacobs anchors the film as a damaged woman who doesn’t want to move to the next level, who likes the scale of her life just fine. Outside the confines of the Commune is the film’s most bloodcurdling character: a Lorne Michaels stand-in (called “Timothy”), played by Seth Barrish with a frigid, judgmental vibe that would strangle an improvisation in its cradle.
*This article appears in the July 11, 2016 issue of New York Magazine.