Success threatens friendships in 'Don't Think Twice' film

by Erik Lenhart

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Film review

Comedian/writer Mike Birbiglia and producer Ira Glass ("This American Life" podcast) team up in "Don't Think Twice," a film about friendship, values and the threat of success. The pair's previous creation, "Sleepwalk with Me" (2012), was a film about standup comedy and how success alters relationships. "Don't Think Twice" is a similar style of film that pulls back the curtain to examine performers, their relationships, and the impact of their craft on their lives.

"Don't Think Twice" begins with the rules of improvisational theater:

  1. Say "yes."
  2. Put the group above yourself.
  3. Don't think.

There are plenty of laughs, but the laughs are more human and organic than the slapstick absurdities usually offered by high-budget movies. The players demonstrate that these types of laughs serve the community as a whole and have a therapeutic quality by reducing tension and giving support in the midst of tragedy. The portrayal of the improv troupe is superb, showing the genuine cohesion and synergy of a successful improv team.

The mantra of Miles' (Birbiglia's) troupe, The Commune, is "Got your back." That mantra is challenged by the aspirations of the troupe members to land a gig on "Weekend Live," a televised sketch show in NYC. While the rule of improv is selflessness, the rule of showbiz is to stand out. When Jack (Keegan-Michael Key of Comedy Central sketch show "Key & Peele"), a member of The Commune, is invited to be on "Weekend Live," envy strains the fabric of their friendships and signals an imminent end to The Commune. Jack's departure asks the central question, "How can we have each other's backs while in competition?" The movie is about improv dynamics on the surface, but its meta-theme is the difference between the rules of the Kingdom of God (cooperation) and the rules of worldly success (competition).

People typically have certain activities like sports, theater, video games, etc. which they might enjoy in their youth, but as we take on the responsibilities and commitments of adulthood those activities become hard or impossible to maintain. Commitments to a spouse, ministry, family, or community force us to re-organize and reprioritize our lives. Michael Phelps' recent retirement from swimming to focus on being a father is a fine example.

The needs that accompany an embraced adult vocation outweigh the activities and hobbies of younger days. That does not mean, however, that all the hobbies and pastimes of yesteryear were in vain. "Don't Think Twice" demonstrates different characters inculcating and practicing the improv principles of selflessness, saying "yes" and "got your back" in parenting, grieving and friendship even as their beloved pastime comes to an end.

The characters enact the verse, "When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways" (1 Corinthians 11:13). We can take some things from our childhood, but must leave others. All of life is a potential parable. The values of sports, theater and community activities educate and form a person in values that make them selfless. The maturation of any vocation (marriage, celibacy or single life) requires an embrace of the "group before self" principle so that the community might flourish. "Don't Think Twice" is a small release film, but a worthy study of the reconciliation of jealousy and the acquisition of tools and values for adulthood. "Don't Think Twice" is an interesting look at the art of improv comedy, but also a deeper look at relationships and the transition to adulthood.

[Erik Lenhart, is a Capuchin Franciscan Friar ministering at St. Pius X Parish in Middletown, Conn.]

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