When a film is set in the make-’em-laugh world of improv comedy, you might think the emotional tone is going to be lighthearted, even bawdy. But that’s only a thin slice of “Don’t Think Twice.”
Mike Birbiglia, the writer/director and one of the members of the ensemble cast, delivers a bitingly honest drama entwining strands of blood, sweat and jokes. While it seems like fun and games to the audience, any glimpse of comedians backstage reveals a punishing connection between nerve-racking work and a vulnerable private life.
Set among a six-person troupe of New York performers called the Commune, the movie is funny but also remarkably touching. It feels realistic, with dialogue resembling unrehearsed, unstructured conversations.
It gives us shrewd explanations of why people become comedians (an odd mix of self-love and self-loathing) and what it takes to survive in the field (a frugal lifestyle and a knack for turning raw gut punches into punchlines). Great creative abilities help, but they’re no guarantee of success.
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The Commune’s stage team is also a hive of cutthroat competition. They’re not just stalled in trying to move up to larger venues; their little stages are trying to close and become more lucrative businesses. Almost all of the comedians hope to leave obscurity and become a new cast member of the network late-night hit “Weekend Live.” When one does become a household name overnight, that newfound fame can be shared with the others only in limited quantities.
Birbiglia, a popular stand-up comic for more than a decade, understands the profession well. He knows where the ambition, frustration and jealousy have been hidden. As one of the characters says, the members spent their 20s hoping about their futures, and their 30s watching those showbiz dreams pass their expiration dates.
Every character is three-dimensional: cranky, angry, intuitive, empathetic. Humor is used not simply as laugh-a-minute entertainment. It’s a bittersweet coping mechanism for painful realizations, even a tragic personal loss.
This comedy is painfully honest and deathly funny. These are insecure people trying to find acceptance from strangers in each night’s audience, and workable relationships in the real world.
‘Don’t Think Twice’
Rating: R for language and some drug use. 1:32. Kentucky, Winchester.