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A movie about people who take being funny very seriously, writer-director-actor Mike Birbiglia's "Don't Think Twice" deftly manages to be funny and serious in the right combination.
It's a weekend night in New York, which means it's time for a performance by The Commune, a popular improv-comedy troupe. The six members of The Commune are such good friends that some of them Miles (Birbiglia), the troupe's founder, nerdy Allison (Kate Micucci, of Garfunkel & Oates) and high-strung Bill ("Funny or Die" comic Chris Gerhard) share a Brooklyn apartment. Of the other three, therapy-addicted Lindsey ("Inside Amy Schumer" writer Tami Sagher) still lives with her parents, while romantic couple Jack (Keegan-Michael Key, formerly of Key & Peele) and Samantha ("Community's" Gillian Jacobs) have a place of their own.
The Commune is a success because these six follow the three cardinal rules of improv: Say yes to whatever your castmates are throwing to you; work as a group; and don't think, but be in the moment. There's an unofficial fourth rule: No showboating when show-biz types come scouting for talent.
That's what happens when producers of "Weekend Live" a network sketch-comedy show that is not in any way, shape or form modeled after "Saturday Night Live" come calling just as the troupe get word that their theater is being closed. "Weekend Live" offers audition slots to Jack and Sam, leaving the others to be both happy for and resentful of their friends' success. Jack jumps at the opportunity, while Sam wrestles with her choice between a shot at TV stardom and staying in the cocoon of her happy improv family.
Miles is particularly irked by Jack's news. Miles, who tells everyone he was "inches away" from landing a "Weekend Live" spot 10 years earlier, is incensed that Jack, who learned improv in Miles' class, is getting this chance. Miles finds himself having to face the truth that, at 36, low-paid performances, teaching classes and sometimes sleeping with his students may not a good life plan.
It's fitting, in the spirit of improv, that Birbiglia known for his sharply comic "This American Life" essays that spawned one-man plays and his autobiographical 2012 film "Sleepwalk With Me" would give himself the story's least likable character. Birbiglia has assembled a strong group of comic talents, and he cherishes them so much he takes the heat by playing the heel.
The movie is peppered with moments that show the hard work that goes into making comedy look easy like when Sam studies video to make sure her Katharine Hepburn impersonation is perfect. There also are scenes, such as when the gang cheers up Bill by mimicking his dad's hospital voice, that show the close proximity between laughter and pain.
The ensemble really come together in their weekly performances, where the laughs rise and fall in direct correlation to what's happening to their lives. Birbiglia, as writer and director, has these emotional beats fine-tuned scene-by-scene, and his sharp and funny cast beautifully improvise their way from one to the next.
'Don't Think Twice'
A New York improv troupe starts to unravel when one member gets a chance at stardom in this funny and sweet ensemble comedy.
Where • Broadway Centre Cinemas.
When • Opens Friday, Aug. 19.
Rating • R for language and some drug use.
Running time • 92 minutes.