Director: Mike Birbiglia
R | 1h 32min | Comedy, Drama | 22 July 2016 (USA)
Playing London Film Festival 2016
This delightfully warm, yet also poignant comedy hails from the mind of writer/director and comedian Mike Birbiglia, who impressed the Smoke Screen with his debut film Sleepwalk with Me. Drawing on elements from his own life on the comedy circuit when he performed as a member of the Georgetown Players comedy set during college, this film tracks a month in the life of the five-member New York improv troupe The Commune (Birbiglia himself playing Miles, the oldest of the group and a comedy coach). Going in with no script and relying on the audience’s cues in order to construct an on-stage sketch (the group’s opening gambit is “So, did anyone have a really tough day?”), The Commune clearly are able to operate on the comedy knife-edge, but this is a scrappy, hand-to-mouth existence. All of the members – Mike, Jack, Samantha, Bill, Lindsay, and Allison – have second jobs or draw on family trust funds, which are essential as they are basically paying the run-down theatre to host them instead of making any dollars off of this.
The improv lifestyle is endearingly recreated, right down to the tiny details that evoke a real sense of authenticity. Whether it’s the strange warmup rituals (high-fives, chants and patting the weird bear totem outside the stage door) that the group carry out before going on stage, or the crappy apartments they struggle to pay the rent on, or the vain hope they all keep inside that their writing submissions to Saturday Night Live will be accepted, there is a real sense of the cast having inhabited real life versions of these onscreen lives at some point. But although the behind the scenes goings on of the improv scene will probably not be familiar to most viewers, the well-drawn conflicts that erupt between the group members are totally relatable, as anyone who has seen (or been in) a group of close friends rupturing due to thwarted ambitious, jealousies of success, or realisations of long-standing differences, will realise. Thus, when the oft-grandstanding Jack (the well-known comedian Keegan-Michael Key from the Key and Peele collaborations), lands his big break on a hit TV sketch show (which is full of former improvs), pleasure at his success soon gives way to questions about what this means for the collective. Interestingly, Jack’s success is not treated ironically, he is genuinely a very good improv performer, with a great knack for impersonations. His elevation to the show is moment of celebration and inspiration for everyone, but there is a cruelty to it. He can’t bring the group with him, and promises of talking up their talent to his bosses come to little. His position is a sharp reminder of the commercial realities of their line of work. But should this kind of mass-market show be their end goal?
Jack’s partner Samantha (Community’s Gillian Jacobs), who in many ways is the most talented and keen member of the group, has to ask herself if she really has Jack’s ambitions to “take it to the next level” or whether improv should be an end in itself, as a rarified form of comedy requiring a unique finely honed skill set. Miles on the other hand has to face the fact that he has maybe groomed a group of comrades who have ended up being better at improv performance and comedy writing than he is, leaving him to drown his sorrows in booze and dating students that keep getting younger than him. As the group split apart and come back together there is plenty of the freewheeling flow and fizz of the best improvised comedy to savour (even the funeral of Bill’s father provides some material for the Commune!), and a couple of star cameos provide the icing on the cake.