Don’t Think Twice


Nothing says kooky more than a wheel of Improv players.

Nothing says kooky more than a wheel of Improv players.

(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

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The Trip


The Trip

British comedians Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan share a few laughs over dinner.

(2010) Comedy (IFC) Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon, Margo Stilley, Claire Keelan, Rebecca Johnson, Dolya Gavanski, Kerry Shale, Paul Popplewell. Directed by Michael Winterbottom

Road trips can be wonderful things. The people who go with us can start off as family or friends or even strangers but by the end of the trip, the shared experiences inevitably change the relationship. The more we get to know each other, the more our relationship changes.

Steve Coogan (Coogan), a well-known English comic actor accepts a gig writing an article for an English newspaper that will involve a tour of restaurants in the North of England. He does this to impress his American girlfriend Mischa (Stilley) who decides on the eve of the tour to spend some time apart from him and returns to America. Coogan doesn’t want to do this tour alone and after some finagling, manages to get Rob Brydon (Brydon), with whom he previously worked in the movie Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story.

Steve picks up Rob, a happy family man loathe to leave his wife and infant child, at his home and away they head to the North. There, in Yorkshire and Cumbria they’ll dine in Michelin-star rated restaurants, stay in 5-star hotels, banter at each other in the uncomfortable way of work colleagues thrust into a situation where they are together so much they are running out of things to say, and trade celebrity impressions at one another.

This originally began life as a six-hour miniseries on British television. It has been condensed down to a nearly two hour movie, edited for American sensibilities. Director Winterbottom is one of Britain’s most dependable directors, A Mighty Heart, Welcome to Sarajevo, Tristram Shandy and Code 46 among his filmography. Here, he doesn’t really have a lot to do – just point his camera at the two comedians (and occasionally at the lovely vistas of the English north and Lake district) and let them and the scenery do the rest. Sounds easy, but there are plenty of directors who have messed that simple formula up.

Coogan and Brydon have the easy familiarity of men who respect and like each other, and have worked well together in the past. Here the best moments are when they riff off of each other, trading impressions and needling each other about their British television personas. The farther we go into the picture, the more intimate the conversations get – not so much in a sexual sense but in a personal sense as they delve into each others fears, their lives and their hopes.  

You have to keep in mind that this isn’t a documentary – these are men playing characters based on themselves, although how loosely is a matter for debate. Coogan, for example, is divorced and has a daughter – not a son, as depicted in the movie. The movie ends somewhat enigmatically but at least it doesn’t disappoint.

Along the way there are visits to Steve’s parents and some brilliant riffing in the car, including the two men singing Kate Bush’s “Wuthering Heights” near where the Bronte sisters wrote the book that inspired it. They are almost like a married couple, sniping at one another.

Maybe that’s why Rob gets a bit testy about Steve’s regular sexual encounters with women he meets along the way, from a Polish hotel clerk to a photographer he’d shagged before and hadn’t remembered doing it. In the meantime Rob has phone sex with his wife (or attempts to) but can’t resist breaking into impressions of Hugh Grant. In fact his constant willingness to break into different voices that grates on Steve’s nerves.

The humor is a bit on the dry side so for those who don’t appreciate the British sense of humor you might find this off-putting. For the rest of us, this is a six hour television show reduced to less than two so there is certainly a feeling that you are missing some connections here. Still in all, it looks like it would have been a fun trip to have been along for the ride on – and by that standard, you have to say this movie is a successful one.

REASONS TO GO: Tremendous chemistry between the two. Improvisational pieces are the best moments in the film.

REASONS TO STAY: Some of the references are too British at times. The humor can be a bit dry. The ending is a bit odd.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some sexuality, some violence, a few disturbing images and some depictions of drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: There’s some swearing and a little bit of sexuality.

HOME OR THEATER: This character study can easily be studied in the comforts of your home.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Bicentennial Man