Don’t Think Twice shows the forced transformation of a small improv group from New York hopefuls to the newest arrivals in that vast community of artists all over the country who have abandoned their quests for celebrity careers, and settled for pursuing their art in small towns.
As the film opens, members of The Commune, as they call themselves, barely make a living doing improv before small audiences in New York City. They live together in a makeshift space in the lower east side, waiting for their big break — that is, being hired by the film’s version of Saturday Night Live.
The catch here, obviously, is that the odds of any one of them being selected are grim, and the possibility of their all being hired is preposterous. But they cling to that hope, being young artists trying to maintain both cohesion and ambition.
The film gently reveals the dissonant, delicate coexistence of loyalty to each other and to personal ambition. The group nearly falls apart when one actor miraculously gets the big break but is unable to get the others hired. His being hired is another defeat of their hopes, and a crushing one.
Did he succeed against the odds because of his greater talent and imposing physical presence? Or was it because he occasionally strayed beyond the team-first concept into self-promotion? Hardly matters, because he has, however tenuously, achieved his big chance.
The others still await their own discovery. But they are getting too old for this. Their meters are running, and even artists cannot ignore reality forever. Before the world discovers them, they will have to discover themselves.
Don’t Think Twice
The title was nicely chosen. We are told in the film that a rule for doing successful improv is don’t think, to rely on spontaneity and to work impulsively off of what has just been said. This works for The Commune on stage, but their personal lives eventually require a little thought.
The theme, you ask?
On a plot level, this unassuming film is about aspiring artists, but its universal subject seems to be group social cohesion, not just its rewards but a group’s unwillingness to let one go, and the difficult of leaving. One actor’s success is an occasion for congratulations, of course, but also of resentment.
That is not unlike a group of 13-year old friends, boys or girls, when one by one their members discover the opposite sex and drift away from the group.
Gore Vidal is usually credited with the often repeated observation that “whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies.” Francois de la Rochefoucauld surely had that thought, and probably wrote that thought, long before.
Don’t Think Twice ends moderately happily, not with the triumphant happiness of most films, but with the happiness that comes to ordinary people when they throttle back their plans. The sort of happiness that seems a contemptible sell-out to young artists with big dreams of commercial success and celebrity status.
By the end of the film, the group has settled for a modest goal, and resettled in a bucolic Pennsylvania. The death of one group member’s father has extended the life of the group. They now have an assured venue, even if it is a grimy former strip joint.
How long that all will happily last seems less important than the moment’s acceptance, a relief from stress and self-delusion. The improv actors seem like the commuter in Richard Wilbur’s wonderful poem, “The Smoking Car,” because failure, the longed for valley, took them in.