The spotlight isn’t for everyone, says the tagline for Mike Birbiglia’s “Don’t Think Twice.” It’s a lesson that’s hard to learn no matter who you are. From childhood we’re taught to follow our dreams, college and training opens up our world to opportunities, and then life squanders it almost ruthlessly. It reminds me of the documentary, “Twenty Feet from Stardom,” about backup singers who always played second fiddle to the limelight. Not everyone makes it and Birbiglia’s film speaks to the experience of struggling artists so well, that it’s often hard to come to terms with the reality the characters face.
Miles (Birbiglia) has been doing improv comedy since his twenties. He’s thirty six now and all he has to show for his efforts is the small improv group he created, called The Commune. He also teaches improv to aspiring comedians and artists. Putting in the work and years of his life to finally be able to strike big in show business, he and his fellow performers (Gillian Jacobs, Chris Gethard, Kate Micucci, and Tami Sagher) are a bit put out when their friend and The Commune theater member, Jack (Keegan-Michael Key) lands a dream job at “Weekend Live,” a sketch show along the lines of “Saturday Night Live.” Bitterness and the “why not me” mentality come to the forefront, threatening to destroy their friendships and any long-standing hopes for a budding career outside of the improv comfort zone.
“Don’t Think Twice” is not a film of cliches and stereotypes. Within its narrative lies a lot of truth and conviction on Birbiglia’s part to show this conviction. For one, the story presented asserts that fame is not necessarily seized by those with pure talent alone, and those who also work hard for years and struggle may never see the light at the end of the tunnel. It’s hard in its truth, but admirable that it is presented in such a way. Birbiglia may or may not be drawing from his own life, but what all the characters go through is easily something all performers (and anyone hoping to get somewhere in their career out of passion and hard work) go through and is realistic and not necessarily optimistic.
The film doesn’t concern itself with happy endings and all the characters have their unlikable moments and are thankfully not walking cliches. Their reactions to Jack’s newfound and ideal gig are filled with a plethora of emotions. They’re happy for him, unhappy that it’s not them, bitter, sad, and worn out from still trying and trying and seemingly getting nowhere. There is just so much going on with every character and it’s portrayed so beautifully. As the film nears its finale, there’s a wonderful, heartbreaking scene between Key and Jacobs, whose characters are dating. Their words have double meaning and by the end of the scene there is complete understanding as to why certain choices have been made. It’s a touching culmination in the journey of these characters.
“Don’t Think Twice” isn’t interested in an unrealistic sense of optimism, of struggling performers achieving their dreams and feeling like all’s right with the world. It isn’t the exact opposite of it either, however. Instead, it’s simply a layered examination of the hope of striving for your dreams, but being thwarted by the reality in which you live. Working hard is only the half of it. Not everyone is meant for the spotlight and friendships built within a community that is also competitive is bound to put a strain on these relationships. Birbiglia ends the film on a high and hopeful note, but the realism in which he approaches and executes the film is admirable and thought-provokingly engaging.
"Don't Think Twice" is realistic, the characters multi-layered, and the execution admirable and thought-provokingly engaging.