Short for: Don’t Think About Seeing It Less Than Twice!

Film: Don’t Think Twice
Year: 2016
Director: Mike Birbiglia (also writer and co-star)

Ben: “If I stop thinking about your movie now, am I allowed to start thinking about it later?”
Mike: “Yes. But you have to stop right away. And then you can start again after that, because it’ll be three times. Thrice and up is fine.”

While stand-up comedian Mike Birbiglia’s rookie feature, the indie gem Sleepwalk with Me, somewhat closely narrativized his own experiences coming into stand-up and his concurrent personal travails—namely a doomed college romance and fits of somnambulism ranging from quirky to quirkily life-threatening—the young (you’re still young, Mike!) writer-director’s new project strays farther from autobiography, but closer to life. Don’t Think Twice casts Birbiglia as an improv teacher on the fast track toward middle age and in the wrong lane altogether for comedy fame. A far cry from Sleepwalk, he shares main-character status with five troupemates: an apprentice improv guru (Gillian Jacobs), a rising star (Keegan-Michael Key), a nest-ridden rich kid (Tami Sagher), a creatively blocked illustrator (Kate Micucci), and a self-described loser (Chris Gethard). The movie examines, in perfect balance, the disappointments and pressures in each one’s off-stage life alongside their obvious comic prowess as an improv group called The Commune.

Considering his acting, producing, writing, and directing credits here, Birbiglia is naturally bound to come away with the lion’s share of the film’s honors (whether or not they be symbolized in statuettes). Despite this, I cannot give enough credit to each of his co-stars, who ensure that Don’t Think Twice is no performers’ pity party but instead a movie of breadth and soul. If Mike’s screenplay is the ship, then its fuel is the chemistry between the six partners, which goes from electric to sour under personal and professional tensions. To put it simply, my jaw met my toes when I learned that the improv-show scenes in the movie were not actually improvised—which I hope reads as a compliment to the entire ensemble.

In particular, Ms. Jacobs shines brilliantly as Sam, the gifted small-stage devotee struggling with her own contentment. A character like Sam might easily come across as fickle and unrelatable, but Jacobs finds and transmits her feelings directly to our hearts. Having seen the actress only in the NBC-disowned/Yahoo!-adopted Community, I confess I was not anticipating the range of comic and dramatic talents that she shows here.

Although none of the characters is quite so layered as hers—a close second is Key’s Saturday Night Live-cast (sorry, that’s Weekend Live-cast) Jack, unhappily succumbing to the egoistic vertigo of his success—all are thoughtfully scripted and rendered with a deep authenticity that speaks volumes of the six actors’ personal relationships to the art of comedy. Quiet details like Lindsay (Sagher’s grown-up slacker) offering to borrow “my dad’s car” when the Gethard character needs to reach his hospitalized father are lovingly embedded into the film like chocolate chips. They support not only the flavor but the sincerity of this very human dramedy.

Besides being an adept visual storyteller (and, of course, oral storyteller: his stand-up specials are remarkably engrossing), Birbiglia here proves himself possessed of that radiant gift that has shone on funnyman filmmakers like Woody Allen, Judd Apatow, and the late Harold Ramis: the ability to see past the pain and bitter roots of humor, to see comedy as a means to affect, appreciate, and love one another.

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