There is no wiggle room in comedy, and the payoff is immediate. Unlike musicians or actors, comics knows immediately whether a joke works or doesn’t. Such instant gratification — and the people who pursue it — is what interests Mike Birbiglia.
His 2012 filmmaking debut “Sleepwalk With Me” was a semiautobiographical account of a comedian searching for his voice. Birbiglia’s follow-up “Don’t Think Twice” — about members of an improv troupe experiencing an existential crisis — is more ambitious. Yet while Birbiglia brings a certain sensitivity to his characters’ insular travails, the film is unable to shake the tropes found in similarly bittersweet dramatic comedies.
The New York ensemble at the heart of the film performs under the name the Commune, and its six members share one goal: to move beyond improv and make it big on “Weekend Live” (a thinly fictionalized version of “Saturday Night Live”). Miles (Birbiglia) is the troupe’s stalwart leader, while Jack (Keegan-Michael Key) has the most natural talent.
When Jack and his girlfriend, Samantha (Gillian Jacobs), are both invited to audition for the television show, only Jack is hired. This creates complex feelings among the other members of the Commune, who are happy for Jack, while also resenting his success. As Jack struggles to make his mark amid the cutthroat competition of the show, Miles and the other performers left behind feel helpless, since their theater is about to close.
The improvisation scenes are the highlight of “Don’t Think Twice,” which, while scripted — by Birbiglia, who also directed — often feel spontaneous, organic and joyful. The camera drifts from one performer to another, showing how listening and empathy are just as important as a well-timed one-liner. If the Commune functions like a balloon, it is the audience that provides the hot air, keeping it afloat.
Even while offstage, the group continues to riff, imitating each other’s voices in hopes of a laugh. Some of these offstage scenes are brilliant, even heartbreaking. After Bill (Chris Gethard) experiences a family tragedy, his friends mock the situation until, inexplicably, the jokes shift from offensive to funny again. Other moments are less effective, such as when Jack and Samantha sidestep their relationship strains by making cloying jokes. There’s nothing wrong with tackling romantic miscommunication, but Birbiglia’s script leaves little room for surprise or depth.
Paradoxically, “Don’t Think Twice” feels both dramatically thin and overstuffed. The Commune members all have their own problems, each of which Birbiglia tries to honor in just under 90 minutes, leading to a tale that feels dramatically scatterbrained. Birbiglia clearly has affection for both his characters and for improv, which he attempts to share with the audience. But by shoehorning too much into a bittersweet story — more poignant than plausible — he undersells the power of improv and the unique skills it requires.
Birbiglia suggests, unsubtly, that being good at improv may be connected to a personality flaw. Each of the Commune’s members is sullen and ineffectual when not entertaining a crowd (or each other). Yet numerous other films about performance have covered the same ground. At its climax, “Don’t Think Twice” conflates the professional and the personal, showing two performers working out their issues on stage. Catharsis arrives with all the nuance of a dull thud.
Despite the obvious goodwill he feels for his characters, Birbiglia maintains a respectful distance from them, choosing not to criticize them as harshly as they may deserve. “Don’t Think Twice” could use a more detached observer, one who recognizes that the laughter of an audience is no substitute for therapy. Don’t worry, comedians can take it. For them, nothing could be worse than bombing.
R. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema and the Bow Tie Harbour 9. Contains coarse language and drug use. 92 minutes.