Were Don’t Think Twice a less generous or insightful film, it might’ve turned the character Jack (Keegan-Michael Key) into a villain. You see, Jack is a member of The Commune, a modestly successful improv group in NYC. The unofficial motto of the group is “I’ve got your back.” Improv is all about supporting each other, taking whatever your partners offer you and running with it, and never showboating at the expense of the group. That last part is especially true when, early in the film, representatives from Weekend Live (essentially, SNL) show up to a performance. Backstage, the members of the group—all friends offstage—huddle up and remind each other that they’re stronger together. But Jack panics when a sketch begins to take shape without him. So he steps out front and starts doing his Obama impression.
It’s a dick move, doubly infuriating when Jack—along with his pretty girlfriend Sam (Gillian Jacobs), the group’s youngest and least hungry member—actually lands an audition. But Jack isn’t really a dick—that is, no more than anyone else. (The film even allows room for the fact that maybe he’s a little more talented than his fellow castmembers—or at least, more right for Weekend Live). One of the many beauties of Don’t Think Twice is how it acknowledges that most friendships are filled with petty jealousies and micro-resentments. You can care about somebody and still begrudge their success.
Among other things, Don’t Think Twice is about the huge shadow SNL casts over the comedy scene in New York. Years back, The Commune member Miles (the film’s writer-director Mike Birbiglia) had his own audition for Weekend Live that didn’t pan out. He comforts himself by insisting he was “inches” from getting the gig—and besides, they were looking for ensemble types, not leading men like him. To those on the outside, getting on Weekend Live is like winning the lottery. But once you make it, it’s no picnic: The film’s Lorne Michaels is a Svengali-like figure who plays favorites and rules with intimidation.
Weekend Live is even more of a beacon because the members of The Commune are at a crossroads. The small, dinky comedy club where they perform is shutting down. All the castmembers are in their 30s and have been grinding away at this for years. They work petty jobs, or not at all. Lindsay (Tami Sagher) has just filed for unemployment. Allison (Kate Micucci) is a cartoonist with a half-written manuscript she’s been meaning to finish. Bill (Chris Gethard) has a father (Richard Kline) who keeps waiting for him to snap out of it and get a real job. They’re all acutely aware that their time on stage might be running out.
I wasn’t the biggest fan of Birbiglia’s first feature, Sleepwalk With Me—it felt navel-gazing and indulgent. But Don’t Think Twice is filled with small miracles. For starters, the comedy can be quite good. I’m not sure if the bits were scripted or not, but the improv flows in an organic and often inspired way (it’s also sometimes bad—which only adds to the reality). Better still, we believe in these relationships. Too often, alleged BFFs in a film give the impression they just met a few hours ago at the craft service table. But The Commune members have the relaxed chemistry, inside jokes, and verbal shorthands of longtime friends.
One scene perfectly illustrates the group’s dynamic. Bill’s father has just been in a motorcycle accident and is clinging to life. Driving home from the hospital, the friends start doing an impression of the half-garbled way he choked out, “Thank you.” They’re basically doing a high-stakes comedy bit—with a friendship on the line. The camera stays trained on Bill, who first squirms, then can’t help but to laugh, and finally offers his own impression. Comedy is how these friends express themselves—the more irreverent the better.
Don’t Think Twice is about the creeping realization that you might not live up to that dreaded thing called potential or that the mythical big break might never come your way. It’s also about learning to be okay with that. If the film has a sneaky message, it’s this: While you were striving for better things, you may have missed the best time of your life.