‘Don’t Think Twice’ — when working weekends is the ultimate promotion

Human beings need each other. They also need to compete with each other. That is the statement of “Don’t Think Twice,” a great film that doesn’t realize how close it is to being a staggering one.

Almost like “Gilligan’s Island,” “Twice” puts a small group of people in their own universe. Theirs is a low-budget if fulfilling existence, lacking steady income and growth prospects. But there is a way out, a ticket to the big time. Only there aren’t enough lifelines for everyone.

Writer-director-actor Mike Birbiglia has crafted a survival-of-the-fittest analysis. His improv troupe is like many an ensemble cast, the reliable captain surrounded by personalities and stereotypes. Is their nightly show a tryout or the end game? The turning point occurs in a phone call to two of the characters. Suddenly, troupe members are as much adversaries as teammates. Birbiglia’s only problem is that his characters don’t recognize that, not as much as they could.

Keegan-Michael Key, as Jack, is perhaps the most talented of the bunch. Or is he? Birbiglia sweetly leaves this a matter of opinion. Jack is clearly the most prominent force of the troupe and perhaps the best-looking. Is he the best comic? Maybe he’s the only one of the troupe who fits what the recruiters are looking for. Among other attributes, he actually looks younger than most of his colleagues despite being the oldest member.

We learn something early when one colleague accuses Jack of grandstanding when VIPs are in the crowd. Even though this is a natural comment that would be made in this environment, it would be better to show this observation than have a character state it. (This is also true of a character who too-quietly gets ahead by writing.) But there’s not enough opportunity in the first 20 minutes to depict such nuances of Jack’s performances. Regardless, we know that Jack may not be the ultimate team player even if he really is the best player on the team. He might be the equivalent of a basketball player who wants to shoot even when it’s better to pass.

Or maybe he’s really good at what he does, and others are just jealous.

Birbiglia brilliantly avoids drawing conclusions. It matters not in this film whether Jack is the real deal. What matters is how his colleagues react to his success. Eventually they will conclude that they can’t have the same relationship with him as when they were peers. He can still try to be their teammate and bridge to a better job, and he does, but he is far more effective as their rival, landing a position they covet. Others who are considered the highest authority have made their choice, and everyone in this universe has to abide by it.

“Twice” is a painful but powerful reminder of negative schadenfreude, when someone else won the prize or got the promotion. It’s also a blunt look at the entertainment business. Birbiglia’s crew performs for yuppies and emerging yuppies, but not for very many of them and not in a very large venue. These crowds are very supportive, even contributing to the show. But the cast learns in a very dispiriting way that the out-of-pocket value of their show is not particularly high and that their second jobs are unfortunately necessary. To even attempt this line of work takes a rare combination of ego and humility.

Making people laugh is not easy. “Twice” is extremely impressive in elevating the drama over the comedy; it never gets boring and in fact is far more interesting than a typical episode of “Saturday Night Live,” the movie’s industry and possibly even directorial aspiration (albeit with a slightly different name). Birbiglia avoids a concept he could’ve tackled, which is whether improv greats are well-trained or just born with it. One would have to think, after seeing this film, that it’s 50% the latter and 50% desire to do it.

But one of the characters teaches this stuff, and it’s fair to conclude as with any endeavor, there are skills to acquire and tricks of the trade to learn. This is a problem in the latter 30 minutes of the film when the characters’ shtick begins to wear thin. Improv professionals, it seems, are just never out of character — they’re trained to respond to any situation with a joke; this is what they do. Just like the way professional editors can’t help but notice text mistakes on menus or road signs. After a while, one wishes the troupe members would just stop performing for each other. But they do remind us: Life is improv. Every day, we learn something new, even those of us who are not comedians, and we react in the ways we’re trained to deliver the best outcome possible.

Birbiglia is on the verge of something huge and partly gets there. But the script, like most of the characters, is just a bit short of the big time. He has brilliantly introduced one of the most confounding human questions. But his characters are not enough masters of their own destiny to answer it, perhaps because they wouldn’t want to. They wait for fate and grudgingly accept it. Still, they remind us that other human beings are either our raison d'être or biggest threat … or both.

4 stars
(September 2016)

“Don’t Think Twice” (2016)
Starring Mike Birbiglia as Miles ♦ Gillian Jacobs as Samantha ♦ Kate Micucci as Allison ♦ Tami Sagher as Lindsay ♦ Keegan-Michael Key as Jack ♦ Emily Skeggs as Shy Sarah ♦ Chris Gethard as Bill ♦ Brandon Scott Jones as Audience Chuck ♦ Sunita Mani as Amy ♦ Sondra James as Bonnie ♦ Richard Kline as Dr. Coughlin ♦ Glenn Wein as Psychiatrist ♦ Neil Fleischer as Pianist Seth ♦ Erin Darke as Natasha ♦ Gary Richardson as Gary ♦ Steve Waltien as Hugh Finn ♦ Kati Rediger as Alicia Bonham ♦ Hallie Bulleit as Audience Claudia ♦ Garth Kravits as Doctor ♦ Jason C. Brown as Studio Page ♦ Pete Holmes as Pete Holmes ♦ Seth Barrish as Timothy ♦ Miranda Bailey as Producer ♦ Richard Masur as Lou ♦ Adam Pally as Robbie ♦ Matt Star as Improv Student ♦ Josh Rabinowitz as Josh ♦ Maggie Kemper as Liz ♦ Lena Dunham as Lena Dunham ♦ Ben Elkins as Elel #1 ♦ Jo-Jo Jackson as Elel #2 ♦ Tim Cook as Elel #3 ♦ Zach Tichenor as Elel #4 ♦ Steve Frederick as Elel #5 ♦ Frederick Weatherby as Elel #6 ♦ Alex Mojaverian as Elel #7 ♦ Gavin Speiller as Autograph Speaker ♦ Ben Stiller as Ben Stiller ♦ Colby Minifie as Audience Neil ♦ Rachel Pegram as Audience Sarah ♦ Tim Martin as Audience Tony ♦ Robert King as Heckler ♦ Kevin Barnett as Writer Terry ♦ Brian Edwards as Bouncer ♦ Joanne Firestone as Jo ♦ Connor Ratliff as Connor ♦ Jordan Kenneth Kamp as Audience Jim

Directed by: Mike Birbiglia

Written by: Mike Birbiglia

Producer: Mike Birbiglia
Producer: Miranda Bailey
Producer: Ira Glass
Producer: Amanda Marshall
Producer/executive producer: Jason Beck
Executive producer: Andy Bohn
Co-producer: Danielle Blumstein
Consulting producer: Seth Barrish
Consulting producer: Jacob Jaffke
Consulting producer: Jen Stein

Music: Roger Neill
Cinematography: Joe Anderson
Editing: Geoffrey Richman
Casting: Kate Geller, Jessica Kelly
Production design: Scott Kuzio
Art direction: Miles Michael
Set decoration: Olivia Peebles
Costumes: Carisa Kelly
Makeup and hair: Christine Hooghuis, Mickayla Pence, Jackie Risotto, Brittany Romney
Unit production manager: Danielle Blumstein
Post-production supervisor: Andrew Hauser
Production supervisor: Kerri Hundley
Thanks: Photo courtesy of Jason Spiro

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