Mike Birbiglia’s sad and tender Don’t Think Twice follows the members of an improv comedy group, The Commune, that serves as the occasional launching point for talent to work on Weekend Live, an obvious stand-in for Saturday Night Live. A few of the current Commune players are pushing 40, and their optimism about their chances of showbiz discovery is inevitably calcifying over into desperation and bitterness. They each watch Weekend Live over pizza and weed, surveying the individual sketches with one thought running underneath all others like a ticker-tape: Why these people and not me? As any artist can testify, this question never has a satisfactory answer.
Birbiglia’s style is deliberately and misleadingly self-effacing, not to mention, one presumes, autobiographical. He’s worked with many people more famous than him, and he seems to have implicatively arrived at a brutal conclusion about himself: that he’s a talented guy, but not a star or a virtuoso. Don’t Think Twice is rooted in the pain of being good enough to recognize that you’re not great, though Birbiglia may be drawing premature conclusions. As an actor, he isn’t a star, but he has a loose everyman presence that lingers even in the celebrity-rich projects in which he’s appeared. And as a director, he exhibits a quiet sense of craftsmanship that allows his actors to find themselves and figuratively sing, both as individuals and within an ensemble. Birbiglia practices the group ethos that are espoused by The Commune.
The narrative is centered on the comedy troupe’s realization that some of its members might become stars, while most of the others are destined to do comedy on the side while waiting tables or teaching classes. The film isn’t process-oriented, eliding much of the preparation necessary to working in theater or auditioning for a major television show. Instead, it’s concerned with emotional portraiture and with behavioral escalation and resignation. Early on, Jack (Keegan-Michael Key) gets a job on Weekend Live, and we can see why. On stage, he’s one of The Commune’s stars because he’s informed with the volcanic humanism that Key honed on Key & Peele. Key’s real stardom sets him apart from the rest of the cast, including Birbiglia, and he renders poignant confusion out of Jack’s futile attempts to stay “grounded” while fighting to ensure that the opportunity of a lifetime isn’t squandered.
Throughout Don’t Think Twice, Birbiglia displays an intimate chemical understanding of the exhausting and unrelentingly impotent agony of failure—of the idea that failures come to have of success as a mythical cleansing. When Jack goes to work on Weekend Live, he comes back to hang with his old buddies with Ben Stiller in tow, and one of the obscure comics asks Stiller if he wakes up high on the disbelief that he gets to be Ben Stiller. It’s a telling and resonant question, a variation of one that resides within most failures, who dream less of money and fame than of being granted permission not to hate themselves for not fulfilling their part of the great capitalist contract.
There are a dozen moments of such empathy and perception in Don’t Think Twice. It’s acutely embarrassing to watch as Birbiglia’s character, Miles, attempts to seduce college girls in an apartment that’s underneath what appear to be sewer pipes, which is also roughly the size of a gas station’s bathroom. Birbiglia’s refusal to beg for pity in such scenes is striking, as he recognizes that the sequences speak for themselves, and that Miles’s sadness is self-evident, though the character’s unwillingness to voice it often allows for a kind of tarnished dignity. These scenes serve as preparation for a catharsis, in which Miles proposes living with an old classmate as a couple, helping her to raise the baby growing in her belly. Miles’s sales pitch to her is heartbreakingly qualified: “I know when you look at me, I get what you’re seeing. I want to think that I can be better than that.”
Yet the film’s true star is Gillian Jacobs, who revels in a sense of emotional transparency that’s reminiscent of Brie Larson. Her character, Samantha, suggests a bridge between the haves and the have-nots of The Commune, as she’s a star who doesn’t want stardom, bailing out on a Weekend Live audition because she claims to believe in the purity of improv (though we sense there’s more to it than that), rendering her the ultimate betrayer of capitalist ethos. She chooses obscurity, allowing Jack, her boyfriend, to move on. Near the film’s conclusion, as The Commune’s theater is about to be torn down to allow for more corporate gentrification, Samantha has a startling moment of artistic purity. She turns her fear and confusion into a comic monologue that’s not so much funny as vulnerable, sending out a lifeline under a pretense of making art, which Jacobs performs with wonderfully wounded elasticity, contrasting the rawness of Samantha’s emotions with the stylized cartoonish-ness of her performative voice and physicality. It’s a mark of Birbiglia’s warmth and generosity that someone answers Samantha’s plea.