“Has anybody here had a particularly hard day?”
That’s the standard question addressed to the audience before each performance of the Commune, a New York improvisational comedy troupe anatomized in Mike Birbiglia’s smart, bittersweet comedy, “Don’t Think Twice.” That question could be asked of the group itself when it faces sudden changes.
The six-member troupe has been toiling in semi-obscurity for 11 years at a small theater in midtown Manhattan while dreaming of breaking into television. They eke out a meager income while living like students in dingy apartments. Doubts about their chosen profession have begun to nag.
As the movie opens, Commune members learn they must find a new performance space because the building has been sold. And when one member leaves the nest and is hired by “Weekend Live,” a “Saturday Night Live”-like program that confers instant celebrity, their suppressed competitiveness, envy and anxiety about the future surfaces.
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As one person puts it, “Your 20s are all about hope, and your 30s are all about how dumb it is to hope.”
In early scenes of rehearsals and performances, members of the Commune exude the us-against-the-world solidarity of a close-knit family clinging to one another for comfort and moral support. But with their illusion of togetherness and equality under siege, their unity begins to crumble.
Birbiglia made his name with the 2012 comedy “Sleepwalk With Me,” an adaptation of his one-man stage show about the rigors of touring on the stand-up comedy circuit. The film was an acutely observed insider’s view of a profession that requires a strong constitution to withstand its humiliations and grubbiness, and to maintain a modicum of optimism. It revealed stand-up as a Darwinian jungle in which only the toughest survive. At least the members of the Commune have one another.
Improv, as depicted in the movie, is not mainstream entertainment like stand-up comedy but more an outlier of theater. The verbal acrobatics in which performers catch one another in midflight tend to be more clever than screamingly funny.
“Don’t Think Twice” skillfully compresses character sketches of all six members, with some receiving more attention than others. At the heart of the group are Jack (Keegan-Michael Key of “Key & Peele”), a cocky showoff who does a nifty impression of Barack Obama, and his live-in girlfriend, Samantha (Gillian Jacobs), who is wary of celebrity. Bill (Chris Gethard) is a milquetoast with shaky self-esteem except when he’s performing. Lindsay (Tami Sagher), whose parents own an Upper West Side apartment, is envied by the others for her financial security. Allison (Kate Micucci) is a cartoonist who hopes to form a writing team with Bill.
Birbiglia plays Miles, who teaches improv, and fancies himself the founding father of the Commune. When Liz (Maggie Kemper), a high school classmate, visits, they strike up a romance, but she is revolted by his “college dorm room” way of life. Miles wheedles and begs the Commune’s departing member to recommend him as a cast member for “Weekend Live,” whose suave, imperious head writer, Timothy (Seth Barrish), is allergic to cast members promoting their friends.
“Don’t Think Twice,” which has a warm heart, could have been a much nastier movie. Yet its disappointed show-business hopefuls dreading their expiration dates make no bones about their insecurities. When Ben Stiller attends a performance and goes out with them afterward, their fawning desperation isn’t pretty to watch.
Don’t Think Twice
Cast: Keegan-Michael Key, Gillian Jacobs, Mike Birbiglia, Maggie Kemper, Chris Gethard, Tami Sagher and Kate Micucci
Director: Mike Birbiglia
Rated R (drug use and strong language)