“Don’t Think Twice”: Mike Birbiglia’s Masterful Exploration of Adult Relationships through Improv Comedy

Don’t Think Twice is a modern and innovative look at success, creative ruts, and the inevitability of changing aspirations, relationships, and lives.  It is part celebration of the peculiar performance art that is improv comedy and part discussion of the ebb-and-flow that a group of friends experience at the sudden success of one member of the troupe – and only one member.  The film was written and directed by Mike Birbiglia and sports a number of wonderful characters, meaningful relationships, and an awkward collection of real-world stakes.  It is not preoccupied with promoting its own answers for how these relationships should be, but is instead comfortable simply raising the complications and basking in the ennui generated by modern relationships.  The outcome is a complex exploration of friendship, jealousy, and the pursuit of passion.

In the film, The Commune is an improv group comprising six members trying to make it big in the New York comedy scene.  They are Jack (Keegan-Michael Key), Miles (Mike Birbiglia), Sam (Gillian Jacobs), Allison (Kate Micucci), Lindsay (Tami Sagher), and Bill (Chris Gethard).  During a particular show, Jack and Sam both wow producers from the film’s hilariously unsubtle SNL proxy, “Weekend Live”.  As a result, they each get an audition to join the show as a new cast member, but only Jack actually lands the job.  The Commune then becomes a hurricane of jealousy, anxiety, and misplaced anger until the group, the friendships, and the professional relationships between these characters all experience conflict and tension in one form or another.

In the context of the usual Indie drama/comedy, Don’t Think Twice does an exemplary job with all of its characters.  Each one has a surprisingly complex arc for such an understated film.  It would have been tempting to overlook three or four of these characters and focus on the headliners  – but this didn’t happen here!  Birbiglia fleshes out everyone;  each character begins the film with a peccadillo, insecurity, or issue.  And, throughout the film we see their growth into better people as they understand their respective shortcomings and move in new directions in response to the various changes in their lives.

Of course, in such a character-focused story, the relationships between each person generate the majority of the conflict in the film.  These conflicts all begin at the edge as unspoken innuendo, and then slowly build up into a torrential storm.  But, this bit of professional jealously isn’t the only thing shifting these relationships.  Some people are discovering a new directions to their life, some are realizing the importance of completing a creative task, and some are dealing with more traditional hardships.  Nonetheless, Birbiglia takes full advantage the dynamic and strength of the improv group, letting characters bounce off each other in fascinating ways.  In that sense, there is a palpable flavor of improv that underlines the entire dramatic narrative of the film.  It is quite outstanding, and wholly original.

Much of this is helped by a peculiar stylistic choice that encompasses the entirety of the film-making process:  Birbiglia actually had the cast improv in front of a live audience for those sequences!  The cast had a reasonable amount of practice beforehand, and many of them are well-traveled in improv comedy anyways, but this is still a crucial directorial choice.  It imparts the film with impressive verisimilitude, as we are witness legitimate improv, but it is being bent slightly towards particular goals.  It’s a great decision, and though using techniques from improv for a movie is not a new technique (see:   Christopher Guest , the Apatow lineage), Birbiglia does more than just film unscripted comedy:  he lets it dictate the underlying energy and thematic material of his story.  It’s a masterstroke.

One of the most remarkable outcomes of this construction is the sheer volume of awkwardness in this movie.   There are cringe-worthy moments where characters horribly miss-time revelations and/or hijack the improv scene for personal gain.  Later on, as a direct result of Jack’s success, The Commune is peppered with terribly on-point “suggestions” from the audience that manacle the comedic flow of the group.  It’s really horrible to watch sometimes, and highly-sensitive viewers who empathize with the embarrassment of on-screen characters will likely be left squirming in their seats.  Still, this is a testament to the power of the characters, their relationships, and how Birbiglia is comfortable letting everyone play in the sand.

Ultimately, Don’t Think Twice is a powerful personification of the cardinal rule of improv:  “Yes, and . . . !”, and the film extends the commandment to encompass all aspects of life.  In our relationships with friends and family, we are often offered the choice between support and detraction, being open or closed to suggestions, and going with the flow or hijacking their moments.  This film dramatizes this very messy and complicated nature of adult relationships, but never stoops towards melodrama or exploitation.  Instead, it is a wonderful depiction of the power of friendship, and the respect that we should show those we include in our lives.  As you see friends succeed in their chosen career path while you struggle (or, even just don’t succeed quite as much), there is a natural temptation to descend into jealousy or even anger.  But the point is to not compare and envy, but to celebrate and support!  Because even during their most trying times, the members of The Commune enjoy life most when they remember to “Yes, and . . . !”

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