SLEEPWALK WITH ME review:
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.