When people look back at the movies and television shows and podcasts and web series of today to see what 20 and 30 somethings were doing in 2016, they would not be misguided in assuming that everyone was in improv. Yes, the trials of the stand-up and improv-classes have been as thoroughly documented as those of New York City prep school students in the '90s.
Is there anyone alive who doesn't know the old "yes, and" rule? That doesn't stop "Don't Think Twice" from opening with a long, sentimental explanation of the tenants of the craft.
It isn't writer-director-star Mike Birbiglia's fault that suddenly everyone struggling to work in entertainment seems to be writing what they know — stories about struggling to work in entertainment. To be fair, he's also been exploring this terrain for some time. Birbiglia's "Sleepwalk With Me" took a similarly insider view of the life and anxieties of a touring stand-up comedian.
He's not uncritical of his buddies, either. It's a fascinating little subset of egos and neuroses that may eventually rise to be the kings of popular culture. The terrain just feels a little over chronicled at this point.
"Don't Think Twice" mercifully tries to do something different, even if it starts out feeling oh-so-familiar, by looking at what happens when one member of a close-knit improv group gets a big break as a cast member on a "Saturday Night Live"-like show.
The lucky guy is Jack (an excellent Keegan-Michael Key), who is the most outwardly ambitious of the group. He's the one who doesn't hesitate to steamroll a skit to allow room for his best impression when they get word that a "Weekend Live" scout is in the audiences.
This bugs his fellow troupe members — his girlfriend Samantha (Gillian Jacobs), Allison (Kate Micucci), Lindsay (Tami Sagher), Bill (Chris Gethard), and coach Miles (Birbiglia) — but they treat it as all part of the game. Indeed, everything is a joke or a bit with this group, and any ounce of sincerity expressed is a guarantee that the rest will mock you relentlessly.
Most have pay-the-rent service industry day jobs, generally disapproving parents, and tiny, dorm-like apartments. They gather ritualistically around the television set on Saturday nights to dissect "Weekend Live" skits and quietly both resent and envy the good fortune of those supposedly at the top of their game. Miles likes wax poetic about how he was this close to getting in one time.
Everything starts to fall apart when Jack gets the coveted gig. Not only is the group fractured and the improv theater closing, buckling under exorbitant New York City rents, but his sudden success inspires a crisis of conscience in everyone as they all wonder if maybe they should have spent less time looking out for the troupe and more time devoted to their own craft. "Weekend Live" doesn't hire teams, after all.
Miles, in particular, starts to really question his choices and whether this romantic mess of a life is suited to someone on the upper edges of their 30s. A visit from a more put-together high school classmate helps to poke a hole in the bubble of his little world.
Meanwhile, life is lonely for Jack, who continues to try to do right by his friends with often disastrous results as he navigates the precarious world of newfound fame.
"Don't Think Twice" is not really a comedy at all. There are comedic moments, sure, most of them born out of awkwardness and not the improv scenes, which fall into the trap of far too many performance films by showing overly delighted audience members too often.
Instead, it's a deeply sincere and literate coming-of-age tale about a group of charming-enough people who should have probably taken care of that by now.
What: "Don't Think Twice." Directed by Mike Birbiglia. A Film Arcade release
With: Mike Birbiglia, Keegan-Michael Key, Gillian Jacobs, Kate Micucci, Chris Gethard, Tami Sagher
Star rating (out of four):
MPAA rating: R — restricted; under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian — for "language and some drug use"
Running Time: 1 hour 32 minutes
Playing at: Images Cinema (Williamstown; beginning Friday)