Don't Think Twice

***

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Counterclockwise, Keegan-Michael Key as Jack, Gillian Jacobs as Samantha, Chris Gethard as Bill, Kate Micucci as Allison, Mike Birbiglia as Miles, and Tami Sagher as Lindsay in Don't Think Twice
"In places it's very well scripted, astute and incisive, but for most UK viewers it simply won't translate."

If there's one genre that presents the ultimate challenge when it comes to cultural exchange, it's comedy. An indie hit in the States, wowing the critics, Mike Birbiglia's Don't Think Twice is likely to bounce across the pond with barely a hint of a splash. It's a shame, because in places it's very well scripted, astute and incisive, but for most UK viewers it simply won't translate.

If there's an exception to that, it will be found in the live comedy scene. The plot here follows an improv troupe working hard to try and make it with a performance style that's all about giving back to the group and letting everybody shine. In every team like this, however, there's always one person who seems unable to resist showing off. Here it's Jack (Keegan-Michael Key), whose natural talent places him in a difficult position. Should he hide his light under a bushel eve at times when stepping up might rescue the troupe from a difficult audience, or should he pursue the ambition they all share and push himself to achieve more?

This is very much an ensemble piece, relying on the very cooperation it problematises. There's Jack's girlfriend Samantha (Gillian Jacobs) who likes things just as they are and doesn't by the narrative that the career ladder is an essential part of life; reticent but capable Sarah (Emily Skeggs), whose quietness means she frequently serves as a sounding board for other people's bullshit; melancholy Bill (Chris Gethard), who is going through something of a mid-life crisis; and Miles (played by the director), who doesn't hide his feelings, whatever they are. Unfortunately they all use the same intonation and their very flat, stylised conversation, which one first assumes is a stage gimmick, ends up saying with them. Whilst there's a humorous element to this it is also very wearing and it means that some of the less developed characters blur into one another, making it harder for the viewer to connect with the group dynamic.

Though not always well delivered, Birbiglia's script is keenly observant and it's apparent that he knows his subject matter well. It's refreshing to see a US comedy about working life that showcases a variety of perspectives and doesn't buy into the notion that there's only one way to be a proper adult. The characters repeatedly reassert their adult status, but it's not their lifestyles that seem at odds with this so much as their attitudes, and there's an implication that the comedy scene is acting as a refuge from a less indulgent society. Towards the end, the two clash as audiences begin to demand more from the troupe's rather mediocre stage show, and in place of expecting us to laugh at their performance, Birbiglia delivers something stronger - the opportunity to fear for them, to connect with the terror of being on display before an impatient crowd.

Initially messy, sharpening up as its various strands come together, Don't Think Twice has quite a bit in common with these performances at a structural level. It's an intelligent film with a clear passion for its subject. It just doesn't quite hit the mark.

Reviewed on: 23 Nov 2016
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Don't Think Twice packshot
Set in the world of New York improv comedy, where the members of a tight-knit troupe are thrown into disarray when one of their ranks lands a coveted spot on a top TV show.


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