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Don’t Think Twice | Review

Funnier People: Birbiglia’s Sincere Dramedy Examines Failure, Success

Don't Think Twice Mike Birbiglia Comedian Mike Birbiglia’s sophomore directorial effort Don’t Think Twice is a rather melancholy, ambitious rendering of the trials and travails within his chosen profession than his self-contained 2012 debut Sleepwalk With Me. More streamlined and less idiosyncratic, this gentle melodrama plays more like an homage to the realistic struggles of comedians, a group of entertainers constantly developing ways to enliven and sell an oft underappreciated art-form. Focusing on a close-knit New York City improve group, their day-to-day rhythm is suddenly disrupted when they are forced out of their performance space and a member of their troupe is head-hunted for an SNL type sketch show, leaving the rest of his crew to decide how to move on as they grapple with jealousy, desperation, and forced to mull the possibility of abandoning their craft. Touching without over sentimentalizing or stooping to assuage the reality of how we measure success, it’s an accomplished ensemble portrait.

Having worked closely together for a decade, improve group The Commune, fostered by Miles (Birbiglia), has gathered an enthusiastic following, even if it hasn’t allowed its members to quit their miserable day jobs. But the Manhattan building where they perform is suddenly bought out and their venue will be permanently shuttered in a month’s time. As each of them struggle with the inevitable, a scout from the popular sketch comedy show “Weekend Live” is rumored to be in the audience one evening, which leads Jack (Keegan-Michael Key) to do some extra grandstanding, which annoys his crew. However, someone takes notice, and Jack, along with his girlfriend Samantha (Gillian Jacobs), is invited to audition for the show. Samantha isn’t so sure she’s ready to give up on The Commune, hoping they’ll be able to continue their work elsewhere, but Jack seizes the opportunity, securing a job and gaining instantaneous visibility thanks to the television show. Meanwhile, their friends aren’t really sure how to process his success without taking into account their own professional stagnation.

With his previous venture, Birbiglia used film as a platform to expand his solo stage show, playing a version of himself struggling to make a name on the thankless standup circuit, and the ruinous consequences this lifestyle exacts on personal relationships. This time around, his experiences working with various improv groups inspired this fictional turmoil of what happens when a colleague is meted with the life changing success they all crave. Rather than show-off the comedic skills of his cast via various segments where they’re engaged in an improv routine (for an example of how to do that, look no further than an emotionally gratifying moment in this year’s Other People), Birbiglia provides a brief glimpse into several of their lives instead, which gives the film a sometimes queasy melodrama feel.

Standing out among them is Gillian Jacobs as Samantha, perhaps the most unique perspective here because she’s offered the chance to audition for the sketch show alongside her boyfriend, but backs out because she finds herself unable to abandon the comfort and joy of her comrades. It’s these key moments, where Samantha realizes, despite her best efforts, she cannot forever reside in this scenario which brings her happiness and creative fulfillment even when she chooses to, where Don’t Think Twice feels particularly meaningful.

A cameo from Ben Stiller as himself provides a curiously layered subtext on both the fickle, self-absorbed role of the audience and the insecurity plaguing even those at the upper echelons of success (as evidenced when he quietly counters Tami Sagher’s flippant remarks about all his film characters being unlikeable). But blame for their dissolution doesn’t rest squarely on the shoulders of heartless comedy consumers. When it is clear their lauded comrade will be unable to assist them, their once emotionally secure group falls apart, choked out by apathy, surfacing jealousies and resentments, and we finally realize Don’t Think Twice isn’t a comedy at all, but a sobering snapshot of how important it is to instead cherish the moment in front of you.

★★★/☆☆☆☆☆

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is IONCINEMA.com's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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