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Review: Mike Birbiglia and friends tackle ups and downs of the improv life in ‘Don’t Think Twice’

‘Don’t Think Twice’
Clockwise from top left: Mike Birbiglia (in orange shirt), Kate Micucci, Chris Gethard, Gillian Jacobs, Keegan-Michael Key and Tami Sagher in the movie “Don’t Think Twice.”
(Jon Pack / Film Arcade)

“Don’t Think Twice” is actor-comedian Mike Birbiglia’s funny and endearing love letter to the world of improvisational comedy and the spontaneous performers who keep it bubbling. It’s an ensemble film in the truest sense, one that gives each of its well-drawn, interdependent characters their due. Think “The Big Chill” without the college history.

Birbiglia plays Miles, the de facto leader of the Commune, a popular, six-person Manhattan improv group that finds itself at a career-defining crossroads. That the small theater they’ve called home for 11 years is being sold proves the engine for these troupe mates and best friends — and for some, roommates — to “think twice” about their show biz futures. Do they truly have what it takes for stardom or, as the years tick on, is the comedy train leaving the station?

The well-oiled sextet includes charismatic, eyes-on-the-prize Jack (Keegan-Michael Key of TV’s “Key and Peele”), his conflicted, idealistic girlfriend, Samantha (Gillian Jacobs from “Community”); insecure cartoonist Allison (Kate Micucci) and her writing partner, the mild-mannered Bill (Chris Gethard); and the plump, perhaps underestimated Lindsay (Tami Sagher), who’s still supported by her well-off parents. Theirs has been an “all for one and one for all” dynamic, with an inspiring “group mind” vibe and elastic, safety-net approach to comedy. 

That’s about to change when scouts for “Weekend Live,” a “Saturday Night Live” knockoff that’s like the Holy Grail for improv comics, pop up at a Commune show. Two of the troupe members are then asked to audition for the TV program, which stokes the group’s professional fears, anxieties and desires to succeed. 

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This also exposes the very real and inevitable competitive streak that quietly courses through the collective. When one of the Commune folks is actually cast on “Live,” its revelation to the others is met with an amusing case of strained bonhomie.

As Birbiglia deftly and compassionately tracks the group’s semi-splintering state, the “new normal” thrust on them and the options they may or may not choose to navigate, he keeps things lively, clever and honest. Even as tensions flare and his Miles veers into pity-party territory, there’s a sweetness and generosity at play that helps avoid any potential melodrama.

Birbiglia, who also wrote and directed 2012’s “Sleepwalk with Me,” based on his semi-autobiographical one-man show, is aided immeasurably by his terrific costars, most of whom, like Birbiglia, have improv comedy backgrounds. Only Jacobs and Micucci are new to the discipline, but you wouldn’t know it from their work here.

For a movie that involves creating laughs on the fly, the story is tightly told and acted, which adds to its buoyant pacing, astute observations and well-judged poignancy. The Commune’s performance scenes, a smartly shot and edited combination of scripted and improvised bits, are fun, often hilarious and warmly remind us why this unique comedy form has endured.   

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‘Don’t Think Twice’

MPAA Rating: R, for language and some drug use

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Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes

Playing: The Landmark, West Los Angeles


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