Technically speaking, pretty much any film festival can provide a venue for comic actors getting a little more serious, but Tribeca, with its off-awards-season timing, is particularly well-suited to a no-pressure try-out for comedians trying to act—or actors trying to play comics, as seen in Folk Hero and Funny Guy. Mike Birbiglia’s new film Don’t Think Twice has both, which makes sense because it’s about improv, that theater-comedy hybrid. Given that joining a New York improv troupe became the new joining a New York band sometime around 2004, a movie about that group dynamic is probably long overdue (or possibly long past relevance). At first, this makes the movie’s earnest explanation of the rules and history of improv almost cringeworthy, even though it might well be necessary to sell this movie to a wider audience (then again: wide audience?). But while Don’t Think Twice is nominally an ensemble movie, it finds its resonance through one particular performance.
Gillian Jacobs is best known as a star of NBC’s late, lamented Community, and nearest I can tell, she is not a veteran improviser; the most improv-legit members of the movie’s six-person team are played by Tami Sagher and Chris Gethard. Though she’s appeared in plenty of comedies, Jacobs is Julliard-trained, and I wonder if that helped her key into some of the loftier ideas about improv as performance that inform Samantha, her character here. Samantha seems like one of the group’s stars—and Jacobs is convincing in the real-time improv excerpts we see here—but over the course of the film, starts to mistrust the ambition that leads a lot of performers into and out of this particular form. Many of her teammates covet a performing or writing spot on Weekend Live, perhaps the least disguised imitation of Saturday Night Live in film history, but Samantha feels more ambivalent, even when faced with the go-getter enthusiasm of her boyfriend and teammate Jack (Keegan-Michael Key). All of Don’t Think Twice is engaging—enough so that I would have loved to see more from the three team players who get less screen time (Birbiglia himself sketches a recognizable portrait of the team’s most senior and most resentful member, though he’s so convincing as a guy who probably doesn’t have the Weekend Live goods that it’s almost a little distracting; shouldn’t an improv guru be at least a little bit funnier?). But Jacobs gives a particularly touching performance, often in relative isolation from her costars, in a storyline about coming to terms with not achieving wild, movie-plotline-style success.
Those notes are also blessedly present in My Blind Brother. Sophie Goodhart’s film takes a more traditional approach to funny seriousness, or serious funniness, or whatever it’s going after. It stars Adam Scott and two of his Parks and Recreation bit costars: Scott plays a blind local-hero athlete, Nick Kroll plays his decidedly more average brother living in a permanent shadow (and forced to help his visually impaired brother with all of his ambitious training), and Jenny Slate is the woman they both wind up falling for. It’s nice to see a movie that doesn’t push Kroll’s self-diagnosed lazy person (he manages a small copy shop and would much, much rather watch TV than help his brother train for a marathon) into “growing up,” which in a lot of these movies tends to involve finding a vastly better-paying and more dignified job pretty much just by putting forth any effort at all. Yet good as character actor and frequent sketch comedian Kroll is in his lead role, the movie largely belongs to Jenny Slate, to such a degree that it sometimes nearly begs to be reoriented around her character.
Though she shares Kroll’s affinity for TV and lazing around, her character dates Scott’s blind guy in part because she’s wrestling with what it means to be a good person. This dilemma isn’t treated with much nuance by the movie, which seems more interested in the sibling rivalry angle. But Slate brings it to life anyway, sometimes in the midst of slapstick (the way she contorts to cover herself in front of one character even after spending the night with him is both funny and character-defining). Praising a comic actor for his or her facility with seriousness sometimes feels like a backhanded compliment to the entire genre of comedy, so I’ll just say that Slate confirms, following Obvious Child, that she can bring a sense of real-life weightiness to romantic comedy situations—something potentially more valuable than merely “going serious.”
Almost all comic actors try their hand at drama at some point; Eddie Murphy has done so infrequently enough that he almost feels like a holdout despite earning an Oscar nomination for the decidedly non-hilarious Dreamgirls (though the movie still capitalized on his comic energy). His role in Mr. Church is his first serious part since Dreamgirls, and less reliant on the razzle-dazzle of his natural charisma. In this movie based on a “true friendship,” he plays the title character, a cook hired by a dying man to work for his mistress (Natascha McElhone) and her young daughter (who grows up to be played by Britt Robertson). Over the years, Mr. Church becomes part of their family, all while keeping much of his own life (which only seems to cover roughly the time between 8PM and 6AM daily) a secret.
Murphy is good here, both at the gentleness and the occasional scenes where Mr. Church’s demons peek through. It’s rare that he gets to play some mystery on screen. But even as he cedes screen time to Robertson, there are aspects of Mr. Church that play to the outsized ego of Murphy’s persona. First, save for the occasional glimpse of drunkenness, Church is a goddamned saint whose hidden life mostly involves enormous talent: he’s an amazing, intuitive cook in addition to a jazz pianist, painter, wise and attentive reader, and gardener. There’s also Church’s mild aloofness contrasted with flashes of anger, which feels, intentionally or not, like an extension of Late Period Eddie Murphy’s attitudes toward his legacy (in a rare interview with Rolling Stone a few years back, his assertion that he had nothing to prove to anyone felt, by turns, both casually dismissive and irritable).
It’s hard to dig further into the Church character, though, because the movie is so underdramatized. Long passages are coaxed along with voiceover (sometimes offering narrative insights like “seasons changed”) and the movie as a whole is relentlessly, endlessly folksy, full of front-porch philosophical musings that don’t actually muse about much of anything. As exciting as it is to see Murphy putting his efforts into something that isn’t a toothless family-friendly comedy, Mr. Church was pretty handily the worst thing I saw at Tribeca this year. Comedy may be hard, but jerking tears honestly is no picnic either.