(2016) Dramedy (Film Arcade) Mike Birbiglia, Gillian Jacobs, Keenan-Michael Key, Kate Micucci, Tami Sagher, Emily Skeggs, Chris Gethard, Sondra James, Richard Kline, Sunita Mani, Steve Waltien, Kati Rediger, Pete Holmes, Richard Masur, Adam Pally, Lena Dunham, Maggie Kemper, Ben Stiller, Miranda Bailey, Seth Barrish, Erin Drake. Directed by Mike Birbiglia
Funny isn’t easy. If it was, everybody’d be a comedian. Of all the comedic disciplines, improvisation is one of the hardest. It requires quick thinking, a quicker wit and gluttony for punishment. Improv artists have a tendency to live hand to mouth and the odds of them making it are long indeed.
The Commune is a long-time improv group in New York City founded by Miles (Birbiglia) and currently consisting of MC Samantha (Jacobs) who is the girlfriend of Jack (Key), the most promising individual comedian in the group. Allison (Micucci) is an aspiring graphic artist and Lindsay (Sagher) smokes a whole lot of pot and is the daughter of wealthy parents who pay for her therapy. Finally, there’s Bill (Gethard), a kind of sad sack kind of guy who has a number of personal problems.
All of them harbor the ambition of getting an audition with Weekend Live (Saturday Night Live if they could have gotten the rights to use the name and footage). However, they’ve been hit with the bombshell that the run-down theater they’ve been using has been sold and is about to be converted to an Urban Outfitter; they have one month to get out.
But all is not lost. While they look for an affordable space, a couple of members of the Weekend Live group caught the group at a performance and have extended audition invitations – but only to Jack and Sam, largely because Jack grandstanded at the performance knowing that the cast members were there.
The group is happy for them, but it is happiness tinged with jealousy, anger and disappointment. Miles, who makes a great deal out of the fact that he had auditioned for the show ten years earlier and had been, as he puts it, “inches away” from the big time, is particularly out of sorts about it. He’s also teaching improv to pay the bills and beds his students whenever possible.
Bill is dealing with a family issue that is taking up much of his attention, although he is grateful for his fellow Commune-ists who surround him and make inappropriate jokes to keep his spirits up. However, as the days wind down, it turns out that Jack gets the gig at Weekend Live and Sam doesn’t, although she doesn’t necessarily see that as a bad thing for reasons that become clear later on in the film but you should be able to figure out without any problem. Now with Jack gone and the clock ticking, the group is beginning to disintegrate as it becomes clear that not everyone is going to have their dreams come true.
Birbiglia is a gifted stand-up comic and as his first time in the director’s chair for Sleepwalk With Me showed, he has some potential in that role as well. As in that film, his character here is not always the most pleasant of people – Miles is arrogant and a bit jealous of Jack’s success which only points out the lack of his own. He sleeps with students which is a major no-no even though the students he’s teaching are adults, and he puts down his friends with barbs that have just enough truth in them to bury themselves in the skin.
Key shows off his formidable talent here better than he has in anything other than his Comedy Central show with partner Jordan Peele. In many ways, Key mirrors his character; of all the actors here (other than Stiller, who makes a cameo as himself) he has the best chance to reach stardom. With more performances like this under his belt, he certainly will get a look from the studios and the networks.
Most of the main actors here have improv experience other than Jacobs and she underwent rigorous training in the art which as mentioned earlier is not as easy as it looks. As a team they work well together and the onstage footage has some pretty fun moments, but the drawback is that improv really is best experienced live; it rarely holds up as well on film. Still, the movie has an air of authenticity about it because of the experience of Birbiglia and his cast (as well as Seth Barrish, the co-writer who also appears as a Lorne Michaels-like figure in the film).
It is a dramedy so the moments of savory and sweet are fairly balanced out, although given the subject matter I would have appreciated a bit more comedy than drama. There is a little bit of tendency towards soap opera in the middle third as the relationships begin to collapse and the Commune begins to implode.
For all that, this is a solid film that has some wonderful moments (a discussion between Jack and Sam that makes it painfully clear that their relationship is over comes immediately to mind) as well as a few misfires. It’s definitely worth seeing, even if you aren’t into improv. The truth is that this is the kind of movie that might actually make you a fan, or at the very least, more respectful of those who practice the art.
REASONS TO GO: A glimpse of what goes into making an improv group work.
REASONS TO STAY: Could have used some more laughs.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of swearing and a good deal of drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The cast performed as an improv troupe for two weeks prior to shooting. Some of the footage of their performances is used in the film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/7/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 99% positive reviews. Metacritic: 83/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Punchline
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Our Little Sister
I thought it was great that birbiglia’s character was so flawed; often when self-directing, directors have trouble creating a humbling character for themselves to play.