There are moments in Don’t Think Twice that make me wish I was a struggling artist, and there are others that make it look like the worst life choice any person could make. This film, directed by Mike Birbiglia from a screenplay he also wrote, zooms way in. It chooses to follow a small six-man New York improv group as they begin to reach times in their lives when it’s no longer okay to only be doing that.
What’s amazing, then, is that Don’t Think Twice never feels like the intimate indie it should, by all rights, be. Instead, Don’t Think Twice has real focus, a sense of place and purpose that is shocking and entirely welcome. While it’s a given that this movie, one stacked with comedic talents like Gilian Jacobs and Keegan-Michael Key would come stacked with laughs, it’s the dramatic heft that really makes this film worth your time.
The New York improv group at the film’s center functions as a surrogate family. Each member of the group has some sort of run in with Weekend Live, an obvious SNL stand-in which is interested in recruiting from the local comedy scene. These are all likable enough people that genuinely enjoy one another. They are united by their love for what they do, and, with one notable exception, by a certain level of confusion as to why they aren’t more successful.
Don’t Think Twice makes comedy look like hard work. It makes real the idea that success comes with a dark side, a sense of entitlement that can make you seem like a different person. Look, none of this is particularly new. The corrupting power of success is well-trod territory. What makes Don’t Think Twice worth your time is the simple fact that its story is so delicately told.
The group at the film’s center is a tight-knit one, but it’s one that we slowly watch unravel as the film progresses. This unraveling is heartbreaking, and it’s made even worse by the tenderness of each of the film’s performances. There are no weak links here. Key plays his character Jack with an understandable level of ambition. He wants to move forward doing what he loves. He’s not a bad guy, even if he is a bit of a showboat. The same goes for Birbiglia, who plays Miles, a 35-year-old man who is already weary of the world. He wants success, and he wants to stop seeing his students surpass him. He’s a dreamer who may need to settle, and he is not completely okay with that.
The real stand out, though, is Jacobs as Samantha. Sam is the most conflicted, someone who is uncomfortable with the levels of ambition that surround her, and someone who may truly be comfortable living the life she currently leads. Jacobs plays every note of her character to perfection. Sam isn’t looking for a change, and as the group slowly dissolves, she finds herself the lone figure attempting to hold it together.
Don’t Think Twice is tender. It’s sweet. It decides to look at the characters at its center and let them drive the story. There’s no need for external forces to interfere. The actors do the heavy-lifting here, making their small internal conflicts carry incredible levels of weight. These are situations we treat seriously, and they allow us to view these characters with clear eyes. I loved Don’t Think Twice because, unlike many of its characters, it lacks ambition. That may sound like a slight, but trust me, it’s not. It takes its small situation and creates meaning. I wish every film could do that.