When a film has already been produced in another form of media, inevitable comparisons abound. There are lots of movies that were once books (do we really need to give an example?), or maybe articles (Blue Crush originated from an Outside magazine piece by Susan Orlean) or TV shows (Sex and the City, 21 Jump Street). Mike Birbiglia’s Sleepwalk With Me has been a one-man Broadway show, a book, a live comedy album, and a This American Life segment. So the question becomes: Does Sleepwalk the movie — which Birbiglia directed and wrote along with brother Joe Birbiglia, Seth Barrish, and co-producer, TAL host, and general badass Ira Glass — hold up to its other incarnations?
Told with narration, flashbacks, and, of course, dream sequences, Sleepwalk is a “fictionalized” version of Birbiglia’s show, studying the rise of a career that comes at the same time as the decline of a serious relationship. Birbiglia plays Matt Pandamiglio, an aloof bartending comic who waits for spontaneous five-minute slots at the comedy club where he works. His eight-year romance with college sweetheart Abby (Lauren Ambrose) is on the brink of collapse as the couple is faced with the next steps of these things: moving in together, having children, getting married. A lucky meeting with a booker leads to lots of little gigs for Matt, opening for this person or hosting this college lip-syncing contest, and driving all over the country while developing his act.
This is a film about comedy as much as it is about relationships. There are brief cameos from professional comedians like Marc Maron, Kristen Schaal, David Wain, and Wyatt Cenac, and Sleepwalk offers a great insight into the lives of stand-up comedians on a Louie-like level, but with much fewer sad-sack undertones. Any aspiring funny people should take note of Matt’s process, as he matures from a bumbling fool telling the same unfunny jokes he told as a college student to someone who develops a solid act and wins the respect of his peers, but his material only gets good when he starts getting real (i.e. venting his frustrations and fears about Abby and marriage). The exhaustion of the relationship, combined with the exhaustion of a stressful road schedule, manifests in Matt’s REM behavior disorder, causing him to act out his dreams and nightmares in sometimes dangerous ways.
Maybe it’s because he’s playing himself, but Birbiglia is a smooth and effortless actor here. He’s acting out his story with professionals for the first time and he holds his weight. Sleepwalk might as well still be a one-man show. His parents (played by veterans James Rebhorn and Carol Kane, in what might be the harshest critique of any of Birbiglia’s friends and family members) provide both comedic fodder and uncomfortable tension, and obviously Abby is an extremely important character. But the viewer spends much of the film alone with Matt, in his car on the way to shows, in hotel rooms, or in his dreams. Still, it’s not something that’s especially noticeable, and Sleepwalk never stumbles with the kind of dull monotony that plays-turned-into-films are often hampered by.
It’s actually funnier to hear Birbiglia describe his dreams in his past projects than to see them acted out physically on the screen. When he wryly describes jumping out of a window, it’s hilarious. When you see him do it on screen, it’s scary.
But ultimately, the dream stuff is just icing, the little something extra that makes his story out of the ordinary, a gimmick without being gimmicky.
And yes, there’s the obligatory Ira Glass cameo.
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