Dallas — True confession: I’ve not been the world’s biggest fan of improv comedy in the past. Always found it funnier in concept than in execution. How many different ways can you do a first date scenario with the voices of William Shatner and Hillary Clinton?
With Mike Birbiglia’s new film, Don’t Think Twice (title is explained at the start, and an instrumental of Dylan’s song plays over the end credits), which he wrote, directed and stars in, I have newfound respect for the art. While improv groups have been around since the 1950’s and have made brief appearances in feature films, they haven’t been the primary focus of a movie until now. Life imitates art and vice versa in Birbiglia’s humane and unexpectedly touching ensemble comedy, the latest chapter of the never-ending story of artistic ambition versus harsher reality.
The basic outline is not unfamiliar: a struggling but close-knit group of teammates (in art, sports, etc.) threatens to fall apart when one of their members hits The Big Time. The Big Time in this case, as it has been for comic writer/performers for the last 40 years, is Saturday Night Live, represented here as the fictional Weekend Live, which imitates SNL down to its opening credits and its Michael Lorne-ish producer (Birbiglia collaborator Seth Barish). The team is The Commune, a six-member NYC improv group, headed by Miles (Birbiglia), and featuring Allison (Kate Micucci), Lindsay (Tami Sagher), and Bill (Chris Gethard); the Mike Nichols/Elaine May duo is Jack (Keegan-Michael Key) and Samantha (radiant Gillian Jacobs of Community). There are also the expected cameos, particularly Ben Stiller in an extended and funny bit.
When Jack aces his audition for Weekend Live and joins that cast, and Samantha secretly no-shows for hers, the group’s dynamics are put in a spin, and the rest of the gang have to reassess their goals. It’s further driven home by the fact that their previously loyal and engaged audience only wants to hear Jack now, and he doesn’t even seem to be very helpful in getting them hired as writers on the show. Long-suppressed resentments surface among the remaining “Commune”-ists; as the film’s tagline states, “The Spotlight’s Not for Everyone."
As Key’s Jack is the breakout member of The Commune, this has to be the breakout movie role (yes, more so than Keanu) for Key, who got his own first break by being accepted (with comedy partner Jordan Peele) for the sketch show “MadTV,” then getting rediscovered doing his dual Obama impersonation at the 2015 Whitehouse Correspondents Dinner (that, as you’ll recall, was both the Prez we know and his Inner Anger Self). Key gets to do his spot-on POTUS here, and his Liam Neeson, but also gets to use his classical acting training as well—he and Jacobs are very convincing, and very likable, as a double act on and off the stage. When their comic and romantic rhythm becomes fractured, their expressions alone convey much of the pain. She, by the way, does a great Gena Rowlands in Woman Under the Influence (as a baseball umpire), which certainly scores points for esoteric reference.
Don’t Look Twice wouldn’t work if you didn’t believe this group had been doing improv together for years, and you do, so much that you laugh, too, even when they riff on a terminally ill man’s speech patterns. I was amazed to learn that Jacobs had never previously done the format, and trained with her costars for two weeks in the discipline before shooting those scenes before a live audience. The improv scenes have a wonderfully organic, spontaneous feel, helped immensely by Birbiglia’s smart decision to shoot them handheld from the performer’s point of view, making us part of the creative process. You can sense how comic minds create, and how later those same minds get hurt, frustrated, and ultimately healed, when they’ve lost a vital piece of that process. Birbiglia’s film will stay with you in a way this summer’s bloated, violent blockbusters only wish they could.
» Don't Think Twice is rated R (language, some drug use), runs 90 minutes, and is currently playing at the Magnolia Theatre in Dallas and the Angelika Film Center in Plano.