Mike Birbiglia has made a living telling stories.
Failing to be a one-liner comic like Steven Wright, he started telling his life stories live on stage to sympathetic audiences. Later, his therapist told him to put all his troubling stories down on paper. “Put it on paper. Save it for later,” Birbiglia said on one CD, because his bright idea was to publish these stories on a blog called “My Secret Public Journal.” He finally was discovered by Ira Glass and obtained a segment on This American Life excerpting these stories as personal essays in the vein of David Sedaris. He even got a one-man show off-Broadway telling these same stories.
It was only a matter of time before Birbiglia decided to make a movie out of this life story.
The resulting film is “Sleepwalk with Me,” an indie comedy about a struggling comic with a serious sleepwalking problem learning to wake up and live a better life than the pathetic one he’s daydreaming through. It’s a good-hearted movie that transcends the limits of his stand-up because he allows the details of his sleep disorder to serve as a broader narrative of his life.
He starts the film addressing the audience directly as though he were in a Woody Allen comedy or John Cusack in “High Fidelity.” We know from the onset how anecdotal and autobiographical this film will be. His character’s name is Matt Pandamiglio, but that too is a personal joke, reminiscent of all the early performances he had where emcees wouldn’t even try to correctly pronounce his name and make him Scottish.
His girlfriend of eight years, Abby (Lauren Ambrose), loves him and not-so-subtly hints at getting married and having kids, but Matt doesn’t seem ready. He’s turned off by the fact that his parents seem like two oddballs and yet have been together for 40 years. Is this what marriage does to you? What if the only reason he’s getting married is because his girlfriend is the best thing in his life at the moment, not because he has any level of maturity or financial stability to make his marriage all it could be?
Birbiglia asks these big questions with a feather touch. When most movie protagonists talk about how lame their parents and family are, they do so with an air of cynicism, but in “Sleepwalk with Me” everybody is pleasant, if not a little pathetic. He makes this movie about finding your confidence by laughing at and embracing that pathetic side.
The movie really shines in its offbeat dream sequences. One of the earliest moments sees Matt running away from a jackal in a wheat field, only to stumble across an Olympic podium to be awarded third place, and then be promoted to first, in the dust buster games. We know it’s a dream, but Birbiglia doesn’t pull any cinematic cheats to make us feel as though it’s not real while we’re watching it.
All of these segments have a charming realism that allow “Sleepwalk with Me” to blend multiple emotions. Birbiglia as a filmmaker has a deft sense of tone, capable of conveying the dramatic impact of diving through a second story glass window, only to add the punch line of walking up to a hotel front desk to ask for an ambulance.
The long-shot cinematography that makes him feel alone on stage, the jump cuts that seem to telegraph he’s sleepwalking through his relationship: these are all signs of a gifted filmmaker in the making. And one with as many comedian friends as he has doing cameos here should have no trouble.
The only concern I have is that “Sleepwalk with Me” is such an autobiographical film that its hard for me to imagine how Birbiglia would handle a story not about him, both as a writer and actor. He relies on this crutch so much that his screenplay is even populated with direct quotes from his stand-up. It can be frustrating for a fan like me who has memorized all his punch lines.
Still, this is a charming film debut. For how many times he’s told this story, Birbiglia isn’t sleepwalking through this film.
3 ½ stars