Saturday night life


Mike Birbiglia's comedy-drama “Don't Think Twice" quotes the most well-known of improv teachers, Del Close: “Fall, and then figure out what to do on the way down." That, like the title of the film, serves both as good advice for improv and an apt description of how professional improvisers attempt to coach themselves and each other through their own uncertain lives.

Writer-director Birbiglia plays Miles, one member of the fictional but entirely credible NYC improv troupe The Commune. Highly experienced improvisers Keegan-Michael Key, Tami Sagher, and Chris Gethard join comic actors Gillian Jacobs and Kate Micucci in filling out the ensemble of improvisers, best friends, and unfortunate rivals for the big brass ring that is a performing and/or writing gig on “Weekend Live" (the film's not-at-all-veiled stand-in for “Saturday Night Live").

Complacent Samantha (Jacobs) and ambitious Jack (Key) are a couple, which adds tension when the group becomes cannibalistic following a visit from a “Weekend Live" scout. Bill sadly hands out hummus samples to scrape by, while Lindsay enjoys financial comfort enabled by family. Allison (Micucci) has another talent in cartooning, begging the question of whether the hardscrabble world of improv should be her end all and be all. The degree to which the characters want, feel they need, or find themselves indifferent to a “Weekend Live" offer largely defines them, and forces the pointedly named Commune to what may be its breaking point.

Like his previous feature “Sleepwalk with Me," Birbiglia's latest is produced by Ira Glass (“This American Life"), who obviously responds to Birbiglia's articulate insights about relationship and career neuroses. “Don't Think Twice" particularly pinpoints a creative community that's never been explored in a narrative film. There's joy in the art, arguably the day-seizing-est art there is (“It's about now," says one improviser), but there's also sadness: career desperation, professional jealousy, and creative hesitation, the voices in the head that plague so many artists.

Even when one of the team lands a gig on “Weekend Live," the supposed pinnacle turns out to be shaky ground, as anyone who knows anything about “Saturday Night Live" can attest. Part of what makes “Don't Think Twice" resonate is how the principles of improv, laid out at the outset of the film, mirror zen philosophies of life that can be deceptively difficult to follow: “1. Say yes. 2. It's all about the group. 3. Don't think." There's also the standard line the group asks its audiences as an improvisatory springboard: “Has anybody had a particularly hard day?" Generally, the players themselves could reliably “say yes" to that.

As a film about improv, “Don't Think Twice" misses an opportunity to show more actual improv, and, well, to be more funny, but its wistful, naturalistic presentation of a thirtysomething turning point -- a forced maturation of sorts -- rings true.

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