This an unfunny take on a funny movie (sorry).
Sure, not every comedy movie can be about an actual improv troupe, but Don’t Think Twice does what most comedies usually don’t — it puts the story and characters first.
I watch a ton of standup comedy on Netflix, etc and I love great sketch shows like Saturday Night Live (well some of it, at least), Key & Peele, and oldies like The State and Kids in the Hall. Sometimes I even get around to doing a little standup and improv as well, which admittedly drew me to the movie.
In spite of that, I find myself rarely enjoying most comedy movies (yes, quite a few exceptions but they really only prove the rule). I didn’t realize this until I saw Meet the Parents. It’s two hours of plot movements and dialogue that just keep beating the same joke that Ben Stiller and Robert DeNiro’s characters are like totally different. One’s a male nurse (a male nurse?!), and the other is a manly ex-CIA officer! Isn’t it zany how DIFFERENT they are?! To be honest, it was probably a pretty stellar improv scene.
And that’s the thing, most of these movies are just simple improv-worthy premises that should only last 2–5 minutes. But they tack on someone like Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, and/or Will Ferrell with a bunch of jokes in totally absurd situations that somehow last for an hour or two. Every movement of the story serves only one purpose: to get Will Ferrell to his next position to deliver his next Will Ferrell-y joke. Done? Ok, now move the plot to get him to his next joke. And then repeat until end credits. There are funny moments and some great lines, but together they seem rather unfulfilling, like nothing worthwhile actually happened.
Writer and director Mike Birbiglia does the reverse and beautifully so. He starts with a story that explores the intersection of the depth our dreams, the reality of our lives, and the truth of our hidden desires. Birbiglia lines up a great set of realistic characters that have their unique quirks and distinct motivations.
Improv unites them, but their desires pull the group and the story in different directions. Then, the laughs, along with the anxieties and conflict, come naturally from those personalities and motivations working together and against each other. Essentially, it’s the same laughs and the same dynamics that we all experience when we’re sitting around with our friends talking about our own lives (good and bad days). Sure they’re an improv group, so the comedy is heightened, but it’s the same feeling.
The hardest I ever laugh isn’t when I watch John Mulaney or Hannibal Buress crush it; it’s when I’m hanging out with my friends, and we’re talking about what is often just some absolutely dumb shit.
And that’s what is great about Don’t Think Twice. Big Comedy Movie with Famous Star(s) makes it seem like great comedy is only found when extravagantly absurd characters are doing extravagantly absurd things. But Don’t Think Twice is a wonderful reminder that, if we’re open to it (and improv teaches us to be), great comedy exists in the ordinary minutiae of our everyday lives.