A movie about the inner machinations of an improv team: on paper, it seems like the most inside baseball, comedy-nerds-only offering of all time. But what is an improv team, really? It's a group of companions, maybe even friends, who know each other well enough to effortlessly summon comedy out of thin air in front of a live audience. Maybe that's not being in a foxhole together, but it's a dynamic rich with deep emotions and palpable tension.
Mike Birbiglia's Don't Think Twice mines both of those ideas with vigor: what happens if your improv teammates are your best buds? And then one of those buds leaves everyone else in the dust? Through that, he taps into the idea of friendship versus ambition, of what happens when a carefully established hierarchy is disrupted by selfish desires.
Of course, selfish is a subjective term. Jack (Keegan-Michael Key) doesn't regret snagging a cherished spot on Weekend Live, Birbiglia's Saturday Night Live stand-in. And his girlfriend Samantha (Gillian Jacobs), despite being a member of the improv group about to lose Jack, doesn't begrudge him either…at first. Meanwhile, Bill (Chris Gethard) has a sick father; the nearly middle-aged Miles (Birbiglia himself) lies to himself about his lot in life by hooking up with young girls; Lindsay (Tami Saghar) comes from a rich family and therefore doesn't strive for much; and Allison (Kate Micucci)…wants to write a comic book, I guess?
Unfortunately, the tertiary characters don't have the deepest arcs (nor the most satisfying conclusions). Even Miles ends up in an odd, undetermined place. But the movie revolves around Jack and Samantha; he's been aiming for a big-time gig since he started doing comedy, while she only ever wanted to join their group The Commune. While the others grow weary and start trying to pump Jack for writing jobs, Samantha has to look him in the eyes every night and act like it's all OK. And he has to know it's really not, but press forward with his dream anyway.
Both Key and Jacobs, not previously known for their dramatic work, knock it out of the park. Key, in particular, has rarely gotten a chance to show range like this. We knew he was tall, handsome, charming, and funny; what we didn't know is how well he could wear slight insecurities and forced reassurance on his face. When he cringes at his team's embarrassing questions towards a Hollywood star, or struggles to maintain confidence after being confronted for borrowing one of their bits, you see the mask of a guy who'll push himself to amazing heights while never being fully sure it's where he wants to be.
Again, what makes the movie work is how well this niche world compares to the broader spectrum of human interaction. When a group of people are on the same page, striving for the same goals and eating the same piles of shit on a daily basis, it's easy to feel like you're taking on the world as one. But jealousy, aspirations, and eventually success are bound to rear their complicated heads, and sometimes the most deserving don't always come out on top. Watching that new reality settle in, along with its stinky aftermath, is something almost any audience can get behind.
Writer-director Birbiglia provides us with the usual comedy archetypes: confident leading man, older dude struggling to stay relevant, nerd with glasses, mousey girl, chunky lady. But it's unique to put them in a situation where they're working together, as opposed to stand-up comedians who are constantly eyeing each other for weaknesses. The whole idea of improv is to work as a team, and the crumbling of those tenuous bonds is more powerful than you might think.
Because we've all been there; even if you haven't done improv or played sports, you've been in a group where one person outshone the other. Much like in Sleepwalk with Me, where Birbiglia made his own struggles in life and comedy so accessible, he's again tapped into feelings we all have through a world we don't really know. He seems like he's telling niche stories for couch-centric shut-ins; it's only when you give him a chance that you realize the scale is small but the inner workings are universal.