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Don’t Think Twice (2016)

Don’t Think Twice? Do watch once… or maybe even twice.

Writer/director Mike Birbiglia’s 2016 comedy — perhaps better described as a ‘dramedy’? — has a modest goal: to dramatize the struggles of talented comedians working together to keep their dreams alive. Seems simple enough, right? But think about it: How many movies about comedians have you seen that were both funny and convincing?

Don’t Think Twice is remarkable for so many reasons. Its cast of collaborative characters convince me that they are working comedians, each with unique troubles that fuel their comedy, each with creative aspirations, each committed to the collaborative magic of improv, and each capable of restraining their substantial egos in order to make a corporate effort work. The movie springs with agility between their highs, lows, and late-night performances. And it avoids predictable formulas…

… except for this: the familiar debacle of “The Theater That Is Being Closed Down.” It’s a tried and true American movie formula. “The Man” is shutting down the show. Can the performers hold on to their magic, their relationships, and their dreams? Still, there’s nothing wrong with a formula if it’s invested with passion, particularity, and imagination. And Don’t Think Twice pushes the pending closure aside so that it’s just a dark cloud over a far more pressing dilemma: What happens if dreams of stardom (in this case, places on the legendary TV show “Weekend Live!”)  start coming true anyway… but only for one of them? Will the subsequent surges of jealousy, suspicion, and unspoken grudges sink the whole ship of the troupe’s long-running enterprise?

Even when Birbiglia’s intertwining storylines do take predictable turns, somehow he finds the most discomforting way possible to make those turns. And yet none of the anxiety or awkwardness feels forced. We find ways to care about each member of the team, even when we see them at their worst.

What’s more, the movie doesn’t feel like it’s been made with any bitterness toward those who become famous. Rather, it reflects lived-in wisdom about the struggle to succeed. Contrary to popular belief, fame — the movie seems to say — is often just as costly (if not more so) for the person getting the big break than it is for the dreamers who jealously watch him go.

Another lesson: Be careful what you wish for. A role on a famous TV show might subject you to the whims of a cruel and unusual show-runner whose business savvy requires suppression of anything like a human soul.

For all of these virtues, the script is just the tightrope that Birbiglia has set. The movie’s real magic comes from those who perform so persuasively all the way across it. Birbiglia’s got himself an excellent ensemble, featuring Gillian Jacobs (Community), Keegan-Michael Key (Key & Peele), Kate Micucci (Garfunkel and Oates), Tami Sagher (30 Rock and How I Met Your Mother), and producer and writer Chris Gethard. And then there’s Birbiglia himself in a self-effacing turn that’s both sympathetic and infuriating. Before it’s over, the movie serves up a startlingly substantial celebrity-as-himself cameo that somehow rings as true as anything in the movie.

Having said that, I did feel there was one thing missing here, and that comes from my own experience in an improv comedy band and in a community that includes accomplished improv comedians. I miss the joy that improvisers know when things really work, when the performance takes on a life of its own, when the comedy blows up into something bigger than any of the performers anticipated. That is a high unlike anything else in the world.

Don’t Think Twice focuses primarily on the challenges and awkwardness involved when one person achieves a success that the rest of them dream about, and thus it becomes a drama fraught with angst, insecurity, anger, and heartbreak. That’s all very, very well done. But it would have been that much more convincing if I’d seen more of the giddy highs that make “Yes, and—” exercises so addictive and rewarding.

That’s just a quibble. Don’t Think Twice seems like a small wonder, until you zoom in to see just how much Birbiglia and Company are accomplishing. I’m so glad that friends spoke so highly of it, so that I went after it even after the season of year-end lists and Oscar assessments had passed. Don’t let this low-profile highlight get away.

Man… I have such huge admiration for people who stay committed to lives in the theater even when their wildest dreams don’t come true. It’s a rough vocation, and a difficult one to pursue humbly and with a generous spirit. But I know people who do. They rarely get the ovations they deserve, or the credit for all of the other hard work they must do to stay afloat.

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Jeffrey Overstreet

Jeffrey Overstreet

Novelist and critic Jeffrey Overstreet teaches writing (Seattle Pacific University) and film studies (Northwest University and Houston Baptist University). He's written a memoir of moviegoing and faith (Through a Screen Darkly, Baker, 2007) and a fantasy series that begins with Auralia's Colors (The Auralia Thread, Random House, 2007-11). He's worked since 2001 as a film critic and columnist at Christianity Today, and he's been a regular contributor to Image, Paste, and Christ & Pop Culture. His writing has been recognized by The New Yorker and The Seattle Times. He regularly speaks at universities, conferences, and churches in the U.S. and abroad. Want to invite him to teach or speak? Email joverstreet@gmail.com.