Monday, August 27, 2012


Sleepwalk with Me is comedian Mike Birbiglia’s coming of age story: it’s about how he got his start as a comedian, and was forced to face his fears of marriage and commitment.  An essential element of that story is a sleepwalking problem Birbiglia experienced that went from bizarre to dangerous, and forced him to confront questions about his future.
Mike Birbiglia is a New York-based comic who specializes in monologues.  He’s gone from a background in standup comedy to a specialty in storytelling, with stories told at New York’s The Moth and other events.  Sleepwalk With Me began as a one-man show, and then it was adapted for the screen by him, This American Life’s Ira Glass, Joe Birbiglia and Seth Barrish.  Birbiglia also serves as producer, director and star. 
The film is told in flashbacks, with Birbiglia telling it to the audience from the driver’s seat of his car, while driving to a comedy club in the future.
Though the film is based on his story, there are some deviations.  (In one Q&A, Birbiglia said the film is “70% autobiographical.”)  Recognizing that, Birbiglia plays a very close version of himself named Matt Pandamiglio. 
Matt is a bartender who wants to be a comedian. He’s been together for 8 years with Abby (Lauren Ambrose) a beautiful voice therapist who he’s dated since college.  The two get along great, but Matt has no interest in marriage.  That becomes a problem when his younger sister gets hitched leading the rest of his family to expect Matt to “batter up”, as one relative jokes.  Worst is his father (James Rebhorn) who digs into him regularly about his lack of progress with Abby and his career aspirations.
Meanwhile, Matt is tired of being discouraged around comedy while being pushed to get closer to Abby.  At one point, someone tries to encourage him by saying Abby's the best thing that ever happened to him, and he says, “See that’s just it.  I feel like everyone is telling me that the best thing about my life is my girlfriend.”  For Matt, it’s a sign of a lack of personal achievement: he wants his career to be his biggest achievement.
Then Matt happens to meet a low-grade talent agent who begins setting him up with small gigs, in small colleges and comedy clubs in small upstate towns in New York.  Suddenly, he’s getting checks for his work for the first time, and living the young comic’s dream of anonymous motels, late-night pizza and sleepovers with other comedians.  At the same time, though, he grows apart from Abby.
The distance becomes worse when Matt begins throwing jokes about Abby into his set, and doesn’t tell her about it.  As his ambition grows, so too does the distance from her, to the point that at his sister’s wedding, Matt hesitates to invite Abby to join the family photo.
Throughout, Matt begins to experience an increasingly outrageous sleepwalking problem, acting out his dreams.  The dreams are hilariously bizarre visions of jackals, guided missiles, “pizza neck pillows” and the “Dustbuster Olympics.”  However, as the dreams lead Mike from stumbling around his bed to chaotic sprints through motel hallways, it becomes obvious he’s got some demons to face, including his problems with commitment.
The film is as sweet as it is funny.  It’s refreshing to see a movie about comedians that doesn’t immediately go for the lewd or crass: unlike other big names (Louis C.K., Judd Apatow for two) who go for bathroom or sex humor when they want to leaven the deeper moments, Birbiglia’s brand of comedy is in a kinder gentler zone.  He’s the kind of guy who talks about his experience of first love as like “eating pizza-flavored ice cream,” and who invites a girl to go to church with him just to throw her off after multiple rejections.
He’s a pleasure to watch on screen, a mixture of almost childlike innocence, slapstick and deadpan humor.  His jaw slightly agape and his eyes wide open, he often looks as if someone has just slapped him awake. Though more gifted at comedy than drama, he also manages to get across a wide range of emotions even with limited tools.  
Along with Birbiglia, the rest of the film’s cast is great, especially James Rebhorn and Carol Kane as Matt’s parents and Lauren Ambrose as Abby.  Ambrose paints Abby as a loving, patient young woman who loves her boyfriend enough to try to make it work.  Abby’s not pathetic or empty-headed, but she is willing, out of hope and generosity, to delude herself long enough to see if things might work out.
Sleepwalk With Me would be a stronger film if Birbiglia really addressed the cost of using our lives, and our loved ones, for “material”: Matt becomes a hit when he begins riffing on his real life, just as Birbiglia did in real life.  (The film itself is an example of profiting from that.)
By necessity, though, it creates a distance between the performers and the people in their lives.  In my own case, as I begin trying to do standup, I’m mining personal stories that I feel comfortable sharing with strangers, but not friends or family.  What does that mean when we’re able to be our truest selves only in the presence of strangers?  And do we owe anything to the people who we use for comic relief?
Had Birbiglia taken on that question -- if his family or Abby had confronted him about profiting from their stories, Sleepwalk With Me would have been 100 percent better and more profound.  As it is, Birbiglia doesn’t really pay any price for choosing to use his life for material, besides the danger that comes with his dreams. 
I hope Birbiglia does film again.  In an age where so many comedies either go for vulgarity or cutting mean satire, Birbiglia’s innocent gentle charm makes him easily watchable on screen.  It would be great to have more tales from him: I hope the next ones delve even deeper.

Monday, February 27, 2012

It's time the Oscars celebrate the way we see movies now

Watching the Oscars last night, I couldn’t help but notice that the usual tone of love for the cinema and the big screen was actually starting to sound a bit conservative, almost protective, in its nostalgia for a bygone era of moviegoing. 
Between the stage made to look like an old movie house, and the tacky, IMO, stunt of the beautiful popcorn vendors in the theaters, it was a harkening back to another time.  Throughout the show, Billy Crystal and others repeated the slogan “Let’s all go to the movies!” before either a montage of engaged fans in their seats, or a great Cirque Du Soleil number showing the “ride” movies can take you through.

All of this was fine, except somebody out there in Hollywood needs to get on stage and say, “Guys, we need to start celebrating the fact that people can now experience at home the kinds of big-screen thrills, 3d visuals and incredible sound effects that used to only be available in theaters.  Let’s celebrate that we have these DVDs that include endings no one got to see, or actor and director commentary that adds dimensions to the film.  We need to start celebrating all this, along with the fact that someone CAN watch a movie on an IPhone, or an IPad, or a laptop computer whenever they want.  People are still watching and consuming media, far more so than before.  Let’s stop pining for a time when this technology was unavailable.”

This especially came to mind for me when they included Steve Jobs in the memoriam section this year: Jobs’ creations have greatly helped in making movies and television media more widespread for personal computer technology, yet the Oscars still seem reluctant to celebrate that technology even as they honored the man.

Meanwhile, if the AMPAS is so serious about getting people back to the movies, then more should be invested in bringing down movie and concession prices, bringing back double features and drive-ins, and other things that made “moviegoing” a fun activity.  As it is, I’ll probably only be paying for the big event films at the theater this year, such as Hunger Games, The Dark Knight, and maybe a few Oscar contenders. 

Besides that, to save cash and time, I’ll mostly be watching movies on my HD TV screen, either thru DVD or a hi-quality streaming site, and I know I’m not alone in that.

It’s time the Academy learned to celebrate that constituency: people who still love the movies along with the ever-expanding ways to experience them.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

On Michael Cieply's "Familiarity" article in the NYTimes

Michael Cieply's recent piece in the Times on the 2011 box office misses something obvious. He writes about how the top movies were all sequels and that audiences seemed to be seeking out the "familiar" as if we were seeking what he called cinematic "comfort food" for these anxious times. 
From my perspective, Cieply misses the point: it's not comfort food that sequels create. It's an EVENT. With most new films that are not related to a previous work, whether a famous book, a TV show or a previous film, there's not a great deal of anticipation or expectation that's going to make for a huge opening weekend. Instead, people come in with curiosity and the film builds word of mouth if it's worth seeing.
These days, with Netflix, illegal downloading, and cable, there's little reason to spend the $13 on the multiplex unless it's an event. Something coming to cinemas that's built up a reputation. Sex and the City: the movie. Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (but not at Christmas- STUPID release time for a grisly action thriller! Should have been Halloween.) Or something new from those known for a Midas Touch, which these days for the 21-39 year old generation includes Christopher Nolan, and Pixar, among others.
An event is something worth waiting outside in the cold for midnight tickets. It's something that you'll be able to gloat over being the first to have seen. That's what's happening in the video game market, where people line up outside for hours to be the first one to play GTA 4 or other games. It's not about comfort food: it's about excitement and anticipation, which is much harder to build with films not based on any kind of previously famous work.