45 Seconds of Laughter ★★½

Did starring in “The Shawshank Redemption” (and then directing “Dead Man Walking” the following year) leave Tim Robbins with a profound compassion for the members of America’s prison system, or was that profound compassion what compelled him to pursue those jobs in the first place? Either way, it seems the famous actor and sometime filmmaker still fervently believes in the words of Sister Helen Prejean, who Susan Sarandon played in “Dead Man Walking”: “Everyone is worth more than their worst act.”

Robbins’ first directorial effort since 1999’s “Cradle Will Rock” finds him going back to jail in order to help extend that ethos into the real world. A broadly affecting documentary that’s long on empathy and short on detail, “45 Seconds of Laughter” takes us inside the maximum-security fortress of Calipatria State Prison, where a few special members of Robbins’ theater company (The Actors’ Gang) lead a troupe of violent criminals in a commedia dell’arte workshop that’s meant to bring them together and restore a measure of mutual humanity.

At least, that appears to be the goal; self-evident as the program’s intentions may be — and as much its results tend to speak for themselves — no one from Robbins’ crew ever announces what they’re hoping to accomplish. In keeping with The Actors’ Gang’s policy of not asking prisoners what they did to deserve their sentences, “45 Seconds of Laughter” keeps context to a bare minimum. If not for some introductory shots along the arid shores of California’s Bombay Beach and a few outside visitors, this film would take place in an absolute vacuum of good-natured clownery (there’s so little table-setting that some viewers might be thrown by the fact that one of the felons bears such a striking resemblance to the star of “Mystic River”).

But while the tunnel vision of Robbins’ vérité approach might be a convenient shortcut to the charitable feelings he hopes to inspire with it — to the idea that the masks we all wear disguise a common spirit that binds us together in being alive — it also has a perversely flattening effect on a film about restoring full dimension to people who can no longer even see their whole selves. The result is a documentary that relegates its most transformative material into a series of broad montages; a documentary that indicates at something beautiful, but isn’t willing or able to articulate what that might be.

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