Mike Birbiglia's Don't Think Twice stands as the best, most revealing film about comedy people and one of the best about artistic collaboration. It's a boisterous and sensitive work of many facets: tender group portraiture, bang-on media satire, low-key romance, evenhanded inquiry into the ethics of selling out. Above all that it's an introductory course in improv stage comedy, a work of advocacy for the scene it surveys and — through its warm fascination with improv's trust-your-group ethos — something like a cult indoctrination.
Birbiglia, the writer/director, has also made it an exhilarating sampler of the art form that is its subject. He opens with a rundown of key rules of improv (say yes to your scene partners' ideas, put the group before yourself) and then shows us how they shape the performances of the Commune, a troupe at a fictional UCB-like theater in Manhattan.
Of course, those rules, derived from the teaching of Del Close, can apply to life, too, and Birbiglia's film cannily shows us how the Commune tries — and sometimes fails — to live up to those ideals. But even when his comics break from their troupe, lunging for stardom or stability, Birbiglia demonstrates, through his wide-ranging empathy and his generosity with his cast, that he holds to Close's philosophy: This is a movie that says “Yes, and?” even to the characters who could have been its villains and caricatures.
Birbiglia plays the group's not-quite leader, a 36-year-old improv teacher who bristles that he's not famous and who doesn't get that his habit of hooking up with much-younger students is predatory. The film's heart, though, is shared by Gillian Jacobs and Keegan-Michael Key, who play lovers within the group. Early on, producers of an SNL analogue turn up to watch a Commune performance, and Key's character, Jack, peacocks for them, going into an unmotivated Obama impersonation that kills the troupe's momentum.
He and Sam, Jacobs's fitful and uncertain character, get invited to audition for the venerable live TV show, and Birbiglia's plot from there smartly charts the fallout: Is Jack wrong to violate the group's ethos to win his own shot at stardom? Are the other Commune members (played by Kate Micucci, Chris Gethard, and Tami Sagher) wrong to hold grudges — or, once he impresses the gnomic Lorne Michaels-like producer, to demand he advocate for them, too? And, as all that's going on, what does it mean that the Commune stares pitilessly each week at the wretched sketches on the SNL-like show and considers it an injustice that they're not on it?
Sam, meanwhile, faces down anxiety of the sort that's usually played for sad laughs in indie comedies. Birbiglia gives Jacobs the freedom to make more of her than that. In the end, when Sam's started to piece herself together, and to make peace with being broke but creative, Jacobs is giving the richest, grittiest performance of her career, laying bare the character's heart through her stage work. She dares to grate, at times, with silly pinched-up voices and not-ready-for-SNL impressions (Gena Rowlands as an umpire!). This is at least the second time she’s played a character who has found herself through community, and the first time she's been allowed to show us that character grow up.
If you're interested in improv or comedy, you're certain to get caught up in all this; if you're not, well, it's still a bustling ensemble comedy, wistful at its edges, and probably this summer’s funniest movie. Outside of Popstar, nothing else onscreen this year has made me laugh as hard as a dark joke from a scene in which the Commune drives back to New York after visiting one troupe member's father in the hospital. The moment is also a stirring and complex study of group camaraderie, the most credible depiction of love you'll see in a theater this month.