The rags-to-riches story has been a Hollywood mainstay for more than a century, especially in regards to movies about performing artists. But finding success and realizing your dreams tend to be a bit more complicated for real-world performers. What about the vast majority of talented and hard-working artists who struggle mightily for recognition that never comes their way?
That question provides the starting point for writer-director Mike Birbiglia's Don't Think Twice. The story focuses on a close-knit, New York City-based improv comedy troupe that begins to unravel after losing their theater (a real estate mogul named Trump buys the building) and, more important, two members of the ensemble appear poised for bigger things.
Birbiglia knows something about making it in New York's rough-and-tumble comedy scene. His off-Broadway, one-man show Sleepwalk With Me was a major hit, spawning a best-selling book and an award-winning feature film (which Birbiglia also wrote and directed). Beautifully written and perfectly cast with accomplished veterans of improv and stand-up comedy, Don't Think Twice offers a sweet and very funny meditation on failure, success and friendship.
An improv troupe is the ideal vehicle for exploring those themes. Unlike stand-up, improv is about mutual support and developing a "group mind" as the players build on each other's small, momentary successes. Making an insular world even more claustrophobic, there's a narrow path to a wide audience for those doing improv, and it runs straight through Saturday Night Live.
All it takes to disrupt the film's improv troupe (tellingly called The Commune) is for two of its members, Jack (Keegan-Michael Key of Comedy Central's Key and Peele) and Samantha (Gillian Jacobs), to score coveted auditions for a familiar TV show the film calls Weekend Live. Miles (Birbiglia), the troupe's founder, auditioned for the show a decade ago and bitterly awaits a second shot. Though talented, Allison (Kate Micucci), Lindsay (Tami Sagher) and Bill (Chris Gethard) have personal issues that seem to limit their chances at moving up the ladder.
Apart from Jacobs, all six primary cast members have real-world improv experience, and it shows in their spontaneous, often hilarious performances. (The cast performed together as The Commune at New York's top improv venues to prepare for the film.) Cinematographer Joe Anderson takes us into the thick of the onstage action, alternating between audience and stage perspectives and capturing the intimate give-and-take required of successful group improv. It's a peculiar task accurately described by the film as "trying to fly a plane while you build it."
Birbiglia suffers some small missteps as a first-time narrative filmmaker. The emotionally-too-specific music cues are an unnecessary distraction, pushing the film toward a Hollywood aesthetic that doesn't really suit an otherwise homespun movie. But Birbiglia's future as an A-list director seems assured.
Don't Think Twice may be about failure, but it's also about finding success on your own terms. It spotlights the personal value of creating things even if the world may never know them on a grand scale. Anyone who plays in a band, participates in local theater or puts their neck on the chopping block doing live comedy knows what that is all about — and how much those things can enrich your life if you are meant to do them.