“Don’t Think Twice” takes improv comedy seriously

The new film from the director of "Sleepwalk with Me" is about a comedy troupe challenged when one member makes it big

Haven’t we had enough movies about comedians? Between documentaries like “The Aristocrats” and, well, “Comedian”; semi-autobiographical flicks like “Funny People” and “Obvious Child”; endless series of stand-up specials; and the entire oeuvre of Louis C.K., don’t we all get it? Comedians, despite their quick wit and giggle-inducing talents, are often—if not always—secretly miserable, lonely people. Tears of a clown and all that. For a while it was interesting to get a peek behind that ubiquitous brick-wall backdrop, but recently it’s felt like overkill.

Which is probably why “Don’t Think Twice” comes off as a relative breath of fresh air. By exploring the group dynamics among an improv troupe, and presenting characters who are more than merely the analogues of their on-stage personas, this smartly drawn and deeply felt indie mostly works. Which is just a long way of saying: “Don’t Think Twice”—it’s all right. (Sorry, Dylan fans.)

The cast of "Don't Think Twice"

The cast of “Don’t Think Twice”

This is writer-director-star Mike Birbiglia’s follow-up to his 2012 breakthrough, “Sleepwalk with Me,” in which he also played a comedian. Here he plays Miles, the most veteran member of The Commune, a Brooklyn-based group clearly modeled after Chicago’s famed Second City. (Del Close gets name-dropped more than once.)

The other members are played by performers who’ve earned their comedy stripes, one way or another: Kate Micucci is one half of the musical duo Garfunkel and Oates; Tami Sagher is a veteran writer and producer, most recently for “Girls” and “Inside Amy Schumer”; Chris Gethard has hosted his own comedy/variety/call-in show for the last few years; and Gillian Jacobs is familiar to fans of “Community.” The best-known face in the bunch, though, belongs to Keegan-Michael Key of “Key and Peele.”

They make an engaging ensemble, even if the movie never quite captures the magic they supposedly conjure on stage. The improvised comedy performances don’t feel very in-the-moment, and generally aren’t very funny. But The Commune is a likable enough gang, and it’s a shame when they find out their theater is closing down.

The dream of every unknown comic, we’re to believe, is to land a gig on “Saturday Night Live,” or, as it’s called in “Don’t Think Twice,” “Weekend Live.” (Subtle, guys. Real subtle.) When some talent scouts attend one of The Commune’s shows, only two members of the group get called in for a full audition. And only one of them gets the job. I won’t ruin the surprise, but the effect on the heretofore supportive group is predictably passive-aggressive. Superficial statements of congratulation eventually give way to eruptions of resentment, and previously strong bonds of friendship, or at least comradeship, are tested.

This is where Birbiglia’s script exceeds the promise of its premise. By allowing these characters, who we initially empathize with and root for, to be less than thrilled when one of their own gets a crack at stardom, he highlights a personality flaw that plagues not only comedians, but anyone striving to break out from the pack in a collegial but competitive environment. The movie eventually pushes this thread a bit far, and gets a bit too touchy-feely, but for a while it works quite nicely.

It’s also pleasant to see Key take advantage of the opportunity to (a) play a character and (b) operate without his usual partner in comedic crime. The circles in a Venn diagram of ‘talented actors’ and ‘talented comics’ might not be identical, but there’s enough overlap to make “Don’t Think Twice” a winning ode to the art of making stuff up.

(NOTE: Birbiglia recently complained about the fact that his film received an R rating for some language and a couple scenes of pot smoking, while the dark comic-book blockbuster “Suicide Squad” got a PG-13 despite relentless violence. He’s right—I think almost any parent would rather their adolescent child see this movie than that nihilistic tripe.)

(92 minutes, rated R, opens Thursday, August 4, at Cinema 21) GRADE: B

 

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