Starring: Mike Birbiglia, Lauren Ambrose, James Rebhorn
Directed by: Mike Birbiglia (debut)
Written by: Mike Birbiglia (debut), Joe Birbiglia (debut), Ira Glass (debut), Seth Barrish (debut)
Stand-up comedian Mike Birbiglia has gotten a lot of mileage out of his bout with REM behavior disorder. It started by jumping around radio programs and telling anecdotes about his condition in which he physically acts out his dreams, sometimes to painful consequences. Birbiglia then crafted a one-man show called “Sleepwalk with Me,” which was met with critical acclaim as well as released on CD. Most recently, Birbiglia compiled his stories into a book “Sleepwalk with Me and Other Painfully True Stories,” which landed him on the New York Times Bestseller list. Barring a foray into interpretive dance, Birbiglia’s directorial debut “Sleepwalk with Me” should be the last stop of his bizarre autobiographical story.
Birbiglia plays a somewhat fictionalized version of himself in aspiring stand-up comedian Matt Pandamiglio (clearly an exaggerated joke on how butchered his name can get). Matt decides to move in with his girlfriend of eight years, Abby (Lauren Ambrose), but is hesitant to lay down any marriage plans. After mopping floors and bartending at a comedy club, Matt finally catches a break when he connects with an agent and is sent around to clubs all over the country to help develop himself into a true comedian. While all this is happening, Matt refuses to see a doctor to confront his disastrous problem with sleepwalking.
Those who have heard Birbiglia’s live album might be surprised by how much content from his one-man show is in the film. Beyond general ideas and stories, a sizable chunk of both the film’s dialogue and Birbiglia’s fourth-wall breaking narration comes verbatim from his show and stand-up material. While it doesn’t quite hit a laugh as often as it should, the aforementioned narration is one the stronger elements of the film, with Birbiglia firing off solid one-liners in his typical deadpan and dry fashion.
The best moments of the film come in the scenes where Pandamiglio begins to evolve as a comedian. Likely drawing from personal experience, Birbiglia is able to perfectly capture the blind euphoria of his character as he revels in living his dream, almost oblivious to the fact that he is playing gigs in front of a handful of people, staying in crappy hotels, and getting very few laughs at his shows. The stand-up scenes get even better after comedian Marc Mulheren (Marc Maron) convinces Matt to include personal stories in his act and we see Matt truly come into his own as a comedian. Still, his journey as a comedian is only one part of the film, and the other major part, the sleepwalking scenes, are a mixed bag. As silly as the situations are and as convincing as Birbiglia is at acting out sleepwalking, these scenes are mildly amusing at best. Some of the more off-the-wall ones work as a quick sight gag, while others fall short completely.
Above all, “Sleepwalk with Me” is a film that is more about a man’s struggle with commitment in his career, relationships, and medical condition than it is about the sleepwalking itself. Though there are some funny lines and an honest autobiographical performance from Birbiglia, the better storylines are cancelled out by the less successful sleepwalking scenes. One can’t help but think that Birbiglia’s dreams such as winning first place in the Dustbuster Olympics are likely funnier as anecdotes rather than seeing them being acted out.