Well, the Seattle International Film Festival has come and gone, and like most years, I ended up seeing way less SIFF movies than I probably should’ve. But hey, at least I saw a SIFF movie, which I can’t say I’ve done the last few years because apparently I’m a bad Seattle film fan. Anyways, because this is a film that won’t officially be in theaters for another month or so, I wasn’t really sure if I should wait until then to review Don’t Think Twice, or just do it now while it’s fresh in my mind. And I would’ve preferred the latter, but have kind of procrastinated since this is a movie that I’m having a hard time thinking about completely objectively, since it depicts a world and an art form that I have some personal connection to. That of course being the world of improv comedy, a world that somehow has been represented in TV and film far less than it’s crankier old brother, stand-up, and from what moderate experience I’ve had with the world of improv, I’d say this movie pretty much nails it.
Don’t Think Twice centers on a veteran New York improv group known as The Commune, who find themselves at a bit of a crossroads, as the theater they’ve been performing at is about to be shut down, while very different kinds of career paths seem to be laid out for each the group’s six members. Things get particularly complicated when the group’s break-out performer Jack Mercer (played by Keegan-Michael Key) gets invited to an audition along with his girlfriend and improv partner Sam (Gillian Jacobs) for a show called Weekend Live, which as you could probably guess is basically just Saturday Night Live. Jack passes the audition, while Sam, well… doesn’t. Which then leads the other members of the group (which includes director Mike Birbiglia, Kate Micucci, Tami Sagher, and the guy who I couldn’t help but recognize as the “me” of this improv group, Chris Gethard).
And I suppose that’s what was a crucial experience of watching this movie for myself. Being able to recognize attributes in these characters and this world that I’ve perceived in my short-lived former life as an improviser. Granted, the world of improv in New York is quite different than in a city like Seattle, where I paid most of my improv dues, weirdly enough. However, the place that kind of got me inspired to do improv originally was at the UCB theater in LA, which as you might guess, is where you observe a lot of people with higher aspirations doing improv and having a lot of fun with it, but while also thinking in the back of their minds, “where can I go with this?”
And perhaps that’s a logical train of thought for an improviser’s mind to follow, since when they’re on stage, they’re of course always thinking about where this thing can go next. And being that the characters in Don’t Think Twice are still doing improv as a serious gig into their 30s, they’re kind of forced to seriously think “where can I go with this?” once Jack gets the job on Weekend Live. And since in the aftermath of his budding success, Jack struggles to get any of his friends from The Commune writing jobs on the show, the group is left to wallow in limbo, and consider whether they should just, you know… give up on their dreams.
And by using the world of improv as its back drop, I think Don’t Think Twice does a pretty honest job of getting to the heart of what it means to brazenly pursue some sort of creative endeavor in your 20s like your life depends on it. At one point in the movie, Gethard’s character says, “Your twenties are all about hope. And your 30s are all about realizing how dumb it was to hope”. And I think the way improv is used as a thematic device is more essential to this movie than you might think at first, since yeah, there are a lot of white arty goofballs in major American cities doing improv right now, since the art form is going through a bit of a boom right now. So it only makes sense that someone would make an indie movie about it.
But weirdly enough, the way improv is used in Don’t Think Twice kind of reminds me of the way the drums was used in the movie Whiplash as a vehicle for the physical manifestation of artistic excellence, since that’s an instrument that can demand everything out of you physically, as well as emotionally. Similarly, improv is an endeavor the forces you to fake your way through a performance and more often than not fall flat on your face in a very public way, much in the way that a young artist is forced to fake and fuck-up their way through early adulthood.
If I had one huge complaint to lob at this movie — and it’s one I rarely find myself invoking these days — it’s that I just wish this movie was longer. Which I do kind of mean that in a complementary way, in that I do have a soft spot for the world that this movie depicts, and I’m always going to be a sucker for movies that create “a world” that feels real and comfortable to me and is one I wanna live inside. But also, I wish this movie was longer just because it felt like some of the characters were less fleshed out than I would’ve preferred. Because I honestly liked every single one of the actors in the film’s fictional ensemble, and you could tell just how great of a chemistry they had from the way the improv scenes as well as the scenes where they’re just a bunch of roommates goofing around all feel so organic.
But it’s kinda like Keegan Michael-Key gets to be the main star of the show, while Mike Birbiglia gets to serve as a kind of jealous has-been older brother who secretly detests his success. And then Gillian Jacobs also gets a few pretty meaty scenes where she really gets to shine, but the rest of the cast… not as much. And for a movie that’s so much about the idea of the ensemble, I kinda wished they’d given the other characters more room to develop and turn the movie into a true ensemble piece instead of a sort of half-ensemble piece. But hey, there’s no such thing as a perfect improv scene, and maybe it’s ok that there’s still no such thing as a perfect improv movie. But it’s nonetheless impressive how close this one comes…