[Review] – Sleepwalk With Me

17 Sep

Title: Sleepwalk with Me
Year: 2012
Director: Mike Birbiglia
Writers: Mike Birbiglia, Joe Birbiglia, Ira Glass and Seth Barrish
Starring: Mike Birbiglia, Lauren Ambrose, Carol Kane, James Rebhorn, Cristin Milioti, David Wain, Marc Maron, Kristen Schaal
MPAA Rating: Not rated
Runtime: 90 min
IMDb Rating: 7.0
Rotten Tomatoes: 86%
Metacritic: 70

Sleepwalk with Me first came to my attention thanks to that hilarious video Joss Whedon made saying that people shouldn’t see it and instead should check out the little indie movie he made, The Avengers, which had been out for four months and was still playing in a few theaters. It was obviously done in good fun and in support of this film that was written, directed and stars Mike Birbiglia. The film was originally a one-man show of the same name that was a huge success off-Broadway in 2008 which saw Mr. Birbiglia blending his stand-up routine with theater. After that came a book based on the one-man show which had a good deal of success and now there’s the movie, which is also enjoying critical praise.

As well as it should, too. The film premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Best of NEXT Audience Award, and has been enjoying some great success being distributed by IFC Films in select theaters. The film tells a story Mr. Birbiglia acknowledges is inspired by his own life, but that has probably been altered a tad with fictional stuff to make it better. It’s the story of Matt Pandamiglio, his on-screen alter ego, a stand-up comedian with three different problems: his stalled career, his stale romantic relationship and, as the title suggests, his problem with sleepwalking. As you might imagine, hilarity ensues out of the anxiety this triumvirate of problems poset to Matt.

The result really is tremendous, it’s kind of messy at times as far as tone goes, but even when it falters it’s super charming in how it does it. That’s the best quality of this film, by the way, it’s just infinitely charming, a total crowd-pleaser for the indie comedy crowd. You can tell this whole thing wasn’t thought up as a film, that much is true, there’s narration everywhere and you have this one guy pretty much endlessly talking, but the way it’s done by Mr. Birbiglia makes that stage-to-book-to-screen transition a surprisingly smooth one. In theory it should feel like this big glorified stand-up act, one big publicity stunt for his gigs, but in the end it feels like something more, something so much better.

The real Mike Birbiglia does have rapid eye movement behavior disorder and what happens to his character in this film happened to him in real life. He was in fact in a motel in Walla Walla, Washington while on tour and while sleepwalking he did jump out of a second floor window, barely escaping death but still having to receive over 30 stitches in his leg. If it weren’t true it would be hilarious; but it also plays as very funny here, though, because you know the guy survived the fall and because it’s funny when a doctor recommends sleeping inside a sleeping bag and wearing mittens so that he can’t open it.

Sleepwalk with Me has a lot of elements just tied together by the narration provided by Mr. Birbiglia. You get to see what it’s like to be a stand-up comedian with a career that’s far from successful and yet this guy who doesn’t seem to be super talented at it is still hugely set with ambitions to make it. It’s also a story about a relationship with a woman, played by Lauren Ambrose, who somehow tolerates his silly antics and his reluctance to get married because he wants to make it as a comedian first. Then there’s the visually busy sleepwalking scenes, a disorder worsened by anxiety caused by his career and relationship, which are really great. If the guy anchoring these three parts of the film wasn’t as personally connected to them and likable as Mr. Birbiglia then I have no doubt this wouldn’t work.

It’s the personal perspective of the guy who made it that carries this film to a nice level of success even though it’s still evident that as a director he still hasn’t developed any real sense of distinctive style (he’s not bad or anything, he’s totally good, he’s just not great). This is a neurotic kind of funny guy, self-depreciating but in the way that’s actually charming and not annoying. That sincerity in the stuff that he’s exploring here made up for the flatness of a lot of the events he was portraying, though to be honest when we get into the surreality of the dream sequences then it all comes vividly alive, I loved those bits.

I haven’t seen Mr. Birbiglia’s stand-up (I’m heading over to YouTube as soon as I finish this review, though) but even if, like Tom’s, his career in comedy isn’t really destined for greatness, I do think he has something exciting to fall back on. He can be this guy who does entertaining monologues and becomes this director with a very specific voice because he knows he can just start talking, not telling jokes but telling stories that are funny, and people will be entertained. I would like to see him veer towards that direction, this is a really great debut from a guy that relies on himself and his own life for his material but that still hasn’t polished his skills as a director but who I really can’t wait to see him move forward with all of that.

Think Woody Allen, I guess. Neurotic, New Yorker, insecure, infinitely charming, his own writer and director, breaking the fourth wall to comment upon stuff to us, playing a fictional version of himself. That’s an impossibly high standard to live up to that I’m giving him, Mr. Allen being one of my favorite filmmakers and all, and while it would be unfair to expect so much from Mr. Birbiglia you can understand what I mean. I thought Sleepwalk with Me was a very, very good debut that will charm audiences like crazy, and for now that’s more than enough.

Grade: A-

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