Mike Birbiglia, Lauren Ambrose, Carol Kane, and James Rebhorn. Click on the 'Play' button above to watch the trailer for Sleepwalk With Me.
By Simon Miraudo
April 2, 2013
(Republished September 3, 2013)
"One day I asked my girlfriend, 'What do you fear most?' She said, 'I fear you'll meet someone else, and you'll leave me, and I'll be all alone.' Then she said, 'What do you fear most?' And I said, 'Bears.'" It'd be a crime to spoil more of comedian Mike Birbiglia's ingenious routine by printing it here. (Fact is, there's no better way to hear it than from his lips.) Lay the blame on his astutely observed and side-splitting one-man show Sleepwalk With Me for being just too damn quotable.
Birbiglia has taken a big risk by adapting it for the screen. Brilliant books and plays have died horrible deaths in the transition to cinema. Miraculously, absolutely nothing is lost in this translation. The feature version of Sleepwalk With Me - directed by first-timer Birbiglia and co-written by his brother Joe, This American Life's Ira Glass, and Seth Barrish - is almost implausibly appealing. The idea of someone not liking this picture is implausible. It would be without plause.
Though autobiographical, Birbiglia goes by the name of Matt Pandamiglio in this iteration (which handily allows him to bend the truth to fit a more filmic form). He relays - from the comfort of his car - the true tale of his early days as a struggling stand-up; taking any job he can get and travelling the country to try out his undercooked jokes on disinterested audiences. At home, his long-term girlfriend Abby (Lauren Ambrose) waits. She's ready to take their relationship to the next level; he's happy to remain in emotional stasis. Matt does love Abby, and his family and friends all think he should stick with her. So why then is his sleepwalking - he suffers from a rare rapid eye movement behaviour disorder - increasing in frequency, and escalating to dangerous proportions?
For a movie about a man whose claustrophobic relationship with his girlfriend is starting to endanger his life, Sleepwalk with Me is surprisingly even-handed. They're both nice, good people, but they're not right for each other. It's just one of those things. Ambrose is lovely as Abby; a sympathetic, sweet-hearted, and encouraging companion to Matt, even as his career aspirations seem more and more unlikely. Birbiglia smartly makes himself out as the one in the wrong; leading on Abby even though his physiology is telling him to break up.
Sleepwalk With Me is perceptive and affecting as a dating drama. However, it's fantastic as a chronicle of a comic finding his voice. The growth of his act is smartly realised. Too often we're told someone has a talent, yet never shown it. Here, we get to understand what a bad comic does wrong, and what a good comic does right (beyond the response one might draw from a crowd). It helps that Birbiglia is one of the great working talents in this very field. ("I've decided I'm not going to get married until I'm sure that nothing else good can happen in my life," is just one particularly biting excerpt of Birbiglia at his best.)
Carol Kane and James Rebhorn are wonderful as Matt's parents, and comedians Marc Maron, Wyatt Cenac, Jessi Klein, and Alex Karpovsky all pop up throughout to offer him advice of varying quality. That said, it's Mike Birbiglia that towers above them all, even with his unassuming, softly-spoken manner. He speaks to us like a friend. His is one of the most comforting screen presences of recent years.
Sleepwalk With Me will be available on Quickflix from September 4, 2013.