Overview: Five New York improv comics find their problems magnified when one of their own hits it big. The Film Arcade; 2016; Rated R; 92 minutes.
Yes…: About ten minutes into my most anticipated film of the summer, Mike Birbiglia’s improv-world comedy, Don’t Think Twice, I had something approaching a panic attack. “This isn’t right,” I thought, “I should be the ideal audience for this. Improv is in my blood, for chrissakes. Why does this all feel so wrong?” Maybe because it gets so much right. And it’s true, Mike Birbiglia has definitely done improv; he’s got the basic skeleton of it down pat. Zip-Zap-Zop and Partner Agreement, Morph Circles and Lateral Moves, all the inside-baseball stuff is here. Love for the art-form practically bleeds through each frame. You can tell Birbiglia really wanted audiences to understand how this kind of comedy works, to feel like they were up there on stage with his characters. There’s heartfelt, and then there’s Don’t Think Twice. Fuck that noise.
Because if improv—good or bad— is one thing, it’s dangerous. There’s no high-wire act like it in all of showbiz, nothing that so risks completely alienating its audience. Across an average improv show, relationships go unresolved, characters fade in-and-out, plot threads dangle, people scream, cry, there’s no hugging, no lessons learned. There’s nothing like it. Conversely, there’s a lot out there like Don’t Think Twice.
Birbiglia gives each of his improvisers a neat little sitcom arc, replete with facile, easily solved conflicts: Allison (Kate Miccuci) needs to finish her long-in-the-works graphic novel; Bill (Chris Gethard) needs to ready himself for the impending death of his father; heiress Lindsay (Tami Sagher) needs to learn to get off dat silva-spoon, boi; couple Samantha (Gillian Jacobs) and Jack (Keegan-Michael Key) need to recognize that they’re growing apart; group leader Miles (Mike Birbiglia) needs to come to terms with the fact that, at the age of thirty-six, he’s probably missed his shot to make it big. Above them all hangs the specter of Weekend Live, the film’s copyright-dodging parody of SNL that all the characters dream of appearing on/writing for, despite recognizing that it’s basically unfunny and terrible. Many will audition. Few will make the cut. Who will it be?
Don’t worry. All of these plot-threads will be resolved by the ninety minute mark, as the film ends on a nice, big group-hug between the characters (pointedly, minus the one who has gotten the Weekend Live gig and been transformed by Birbiglia’s script into a callous caricature of showbiz calcification ). And why not? They’re all likable enough (except the one who has gotten the Weekend Live gig), albeit more thanks to the skills of the performers than to Birbiglia’s characterization of them. It’s a pleasant time at the movies, which is—as I think I’ve made clear by now—complete bullshit.
…And?: Perhaps I’m being unduly harsh. After all, a movie doesn’t have to carry the thematic and tonal properties of its milieu in order to be a successful examination of it. A film like Everybody Wants Some!! succeeds in part because it completely detaches itself from all the usual baggage of its environment. Alas, Don’t Think Twice is hobbled by the limitations of its genre. That’s right folks, I’m back on the Sundance-movie beat. And despite never actually having played the festival (the film had its premiere at Austin’s South By Southwest), Don’t Think Twice is about as Park City as it gets. Let me just get out my list here (clears throat): Straw-man fallacies, blandly televisual direction, schematic character arcs, wan humor, stock New York location work, and a cameo from Lena Dunham.
Good vibes are negated by unnecessary conflict (oh, the lessons the indie-world could learn from Magic Mike XXL), and despair is counteracted by the facility of the entire enterprise. And sure, Don’t Think Twice traffics in some demonstrable truths, but they’re easy truths: the spotlight corrupts, sometimes your friends don’t want to see you succeed, laughter is the best medicine, GROUP HUG! I’m sorry, but there’s nothing in Don’t Think Twice that shouldn’t be painfully obvious to, uh, audiences everywhere. If you come out having learned something new about yourself or others, you’re either a sap or you’re lying to yourself. We’ve all seen this kind of movie before, and I remain unconvinced we need any more of them.
Overall: Birbiglia’s comedy isn’t good improv or bad improv; it’s not even fucking improv, closer to its scorn-worthy Weekend Live than anything that has ever been seen on the stages of Second City or Uptight Citizens Brigade. Don’t Think Twice is safe, welcoming, and above-all else it’s the single most damning thing you could ever say about improv, scripted.
Featured Image: The Film Arcade