'Don't Think Twice' Review: Failure Is an Option

A tight-knit improv group fractures after one member gets a TV gig in Mike Birbiglia's bittersweet comedy

Clockwise from top: Kate Micucci, Chris Gethard, Gillian Jacobs, Keegan-Michael Key, Tami Sagher and Mike Birbiglia in 'Don't Think Twice.'

Don't Think Twice looks at life inside an improv comedy group, which means it speaks to anyone on the periphery of success who dreams of taking the next step. It also speaks to the agony of watching one of your peers take that step and leave you behind. I can't get Mike Birbiglia's movie out of my head.

Birbiglia, 38, knows the drill: He's been doing improv and stand-up since forever. In 2012, he turned his semi-autobiographical one-man show, Sleepwalk With Me, into his feature film debut as writer, director and actor. This one's even better. Don't Think Twice, which spends a lot of time prowling the stage, also examines — sometimes generously, sometimes not — human interaction with a twist of desperation. It feels lived it, honest and painfully funny.

About that title. It refers to three basic improv rules:
1. Say yes to whatever idea an audience throws out.
2. Make yourself subservient to the group.
3. Don't think too much or it'll make kill your comedy.

About the film's six-member improv group: They're called the Commune and they play in a lower Manhattan dump about to be swallowed up by Trump. (I just got a chill.) Birbiglia excels as Miles, who teaches improv classes, puppy-dogs his way into sex with students, and is going nowhere fast. Most of the members have day jobs, except Lindsay (Tami Sagher) who has rich parents. Allison (Kate Micucci) has dreams of writing and drawing a comic book. Bill (Chris Gethard) worries that his father is dying. Samantha (Gillian Jacobs) likes things as they are. And Jack (Keegan-Michael Key), who shacks up with Samantha, wants it all.

Onstage, they have each other's backs. And watching them develop the material, like something out of an Altman movie, is pure pleasure. The serpent in this Eden is an announcement that someone from Weekend Live, an SNL-like comedy series, will be attending a Commune performance. Will Jack restrain his need to show off? Will Gillian blow her big chance? Will Miles finally get noticed?

Even when the script follows predicable lines, the actors spring surprises. Jacobs, an improv virgin, nails every nuance. And Key, from Key & Peele, is a star in the making, with an actor's instinct to let character flaws show through his bravado. Birbiglia, a filmmaking talent to watch, allows the emotions in his film to sneak up on you, like they do in life. But he's no soft touch. Don't Think Twice lays out the joy, pain, anger, and aching doubt that go into letting an audience in on the joke. You'll laugh till it hurts.