Movie Review: Cutthroat comics fight for status in “Don’t Think Twice”

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With all the books and documentaries about the state of American comedy and how those who succeed at it must first make their mark at “Saturday Night Live,” there isn’t much we don’t know about that path to showbiz success.

Some make it, some don’t. Friends, partners, colleagues and lovers are left behind.

And sometimes, those who do make it step all over/steal from those who don’t. But what matters most, the moral of every story you hear from that world, is making it. You do, and you don’t look back. You don’t think twice about those you left behind.

Comic turned writer-actor-director Mike Birbiglia’s “Don’t Think Twice” is a behind-the-laughter essay in the hard lives of those who try to make a living making us laugh. It’s predictable, downright conventional, considering how much more “out there” his breakout film, “Sleepwalk With Me” (also about a struggling comic) was.

But the tale takes just enough turns off the well-worn path to hold our interest, and finds just enough laughs between the morose “never gonna happen for me” epiphanies of the comics in question.

They call themselves The Commune, and a brief introduction places them within the tradition of Chicago’s Second City. They are six improvisers who act, write, concoct winning characters or bits that they can squeeze into the improvised scenarios shouted out by the audience each night at their Chicago theater.

But they’re losing the theater, some “Trump buyout” of the real estate. Their future has a ticking clock, a race to A) get discovered by “Weekend Live” (Guess which show that is?), B) find a writing gig and/or C) find a new place to perform.

Birbiglia is the group’s leader, Miles, a grizzled veteran of the improv wars, seeing to it that The Commune is “a group working together in the moment.” He teaches classes in improvisational comedy, and pushing 40, he’s still bedding students gullible enough to be impressed by the sad self-built college dorm “loft” he’s concocted for his sleeping quarters.

Lindsay (Tami Sagher) is a 30something trust fund baby who can squire them all around in a Cadillac Escalade.

Allison and Bill (Kate Micucci of “Garfinkle & Oates” and Chris Gethard), Jack and Sam (Keenan-Michael Key and Gillian Jacobs) work at dead-end day jobs just so their nights can be free to chase their dream.

It’s meant to be obvious that only two of this sextet have a prayer of making it to “Live, from New York…” Key, of TV’s “Key & Peele” and the recent romp “Keanu,” is handsome, quick-witted and possesses a killer Obama impression, which he works into the oddest improvised places if he’s heard there might be a talent scout in that night’s audience.

His castmates, by the way, HATE him for that.

His girlfriend, Sam, has TV-star looks and a perky persona, even if we’re never convinced she’s remotely as funny as the movie suggests.

Naturally, they’re the only two offered TV tryouts. The best moments in the movie come from the way their castmates, those “left behind,” react. Their pride and happiness that the troupe is being recognized is almost buried beneath jealousy and resentment.

I like the way Birbiglia shows Jack’s dilemma. He has star potential, but loyalty. He is determined to give his friends every chance to get a break, help them achieve what he is on the brink of achieving. But the backstabbing politics of the TV show get in the way. It’s a paranoid workplace run on a “be funny or you’re gone” model by its version of Lorne Michaels, a soft-spoken tyrant and genuine terror.

“First year? Don’t get fired.”

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It’s a movie built on “types” and there’s no surprise when those types behave according to type. But Birbiglia’s underlit, intimate backstage dramedy is overflowing with killer details — the way they buck each other up with a sort of group hug pre-show, everybody telling everybody else, “Got your back. Got your back. Got your back.”

The improvisations don’t often gel, but there’s an epic rescue of an awkward moment when a heckler cuts to the bone with a shot at Jack’s success and the hapless future facing the rest of them.

Watching the players study old movies and TV talk show moments (Hepburn on “Cavett”) to cook up impersonations and surreal bits that might land a laugh is fascinating.

Birbiglia, the sort of comic storyteller that “This American Life” would embrace (as they have), gives Miles a disproportional chunk of the story, forcing him to face the adulthood he’s put off as he tries to impress his high school crush (Maggie Kemper) and fails. Yes, we get that “another one of my students gets my dream job.”  But that, and the last-chance romance hinted at here, are melodramatic cliches.

But he has ably condensed much of what we hear about this world and those in it into an intimate, if conventional portrait of dreamers seeing their dreams deferred when in reality they’ve been shattered, troupers given hard truths about where they stand on the comic totem pole and yet refusing, even then, to give up.

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MPAA Rating:R for language and some drug use

Cast: Keenan-Michael Key, Gillian Jacobs, Mike Birbiglia, Kate Micucci, Chris Gethard, Tami Sagher
Credits: Written and directed by Mike Birbiglia. A Film Arcade release.

Running time: 1:32

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