Mike Birbiglia fans will come to Sleepwalk With Me already familiar with the material, enough that at times they will be able to guess exactly what is coming next. Birbiglia has covered this ground in his stand up, as a storyteller, in print and as a one-man show. Sleepwalk is almost his brand. Which begs the question, is there anything new for Birbiglia to explore here?
Fortunately for Birbiglia and his audience, the answer is yes. Through each iteration and each retelling, Birbiglia has refined the story, and Sleepwalk With Me the film is the most pointed and succinct version yet.
There are three main threads: Birbiglia, or rather his stand-in Matt Pandamiglio, is at the tipping point. He has been with his girlfriend Abby for eight years, he’s trying to make it as a comedian, and his sleeping disorder is getting worse. He seems unwilling or unable to move forward, but the tension builds as each problem complicates the others.
The dimension the film adds is watching Matt/Mike struggle while he has to interact with other people. It emphasizes his awkwardness and shows how his actions have a real effect on others in a way that a monologue can’t. When Matt brings up not wanting to get married early on in the film, Abby (played by Lauren Ambrose) deflates completely. His father (James Rebhorn) is always berating him for not making plans as his mother (Carol Kane) meekly tries to defuse the tension. And in one important moment, the audience can actually see him bleed.
The first trace of hope comes after a revelation on a road gig. Matt bombs with an audience doing material about Cookie Monster and panda bears. He opens up about his personal life to the headliner Marc Mulheren (played with a sleazy charm by Marc Maron), who tells him to put that stuff in the act. From then on, his comedy career picks up while his relationship with Abby deteriorates, which in turn pushed his sleepwalking to a more dangerous level. The scene in which Matt finally caves to the pressure with Abby is both heartbreaking and hysterical. And then, of course, there is the final turning point and epiphany at the La Quinta Inn. The photos from the real-life incident over the credits are a nice touch, too.
Stand-up fans should especially enjoy seeing Matt’s transformation from open micer to a road comic making a living. Birbiglia doesn’t exaggerate the arc – he’s not playing arenas at the end, he hasn’t had a TV break, and he’s not any sort of national sensation. His breakthrough figuring out who he was as a comic was more important, and thus a bit of who he was as a person. There is clearly still plenty of hard work ahead, driven home by the insane triptychs that illustrate his travel plans from gig to gig. There are also a lot of comics playing minor roles; in addition to Maron, Hannibal Buress, Jessi Klein, Kristen Schaal, Henry Phillips, Wyatt Cenac and David Wain all make cameos. Eugene Mirman can also be seen bringing Matt offstage in what looks like Union Hall in New York, home to Mirman’s Pretty Good Friends.
It’s impressive that this is Birbiglia’s directorial debut. The fact that he’s worked so hard on this material seems to have allowed him to storyboard more effectively, to know where each beat should be, even if the medium is completely new to him. He had help in the form of co-director Seth Barrish, who directed both of Birbiglia’s one-man shows, Sleepwalk and My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend, for the stage. Barrish is also credited with the screenplay, along with Birbiglia and his brother Joe, as well as This American Life host and producer Ira Glass, who also produced the film.
Glass’s influence is detected in the pacing of the film. It has the feel of a TAL story, most obviously because Birbiglia has told the stories there. There are also similarities to work by other comedians-turned-filmmakers Louis C.K. and Woody Allen. Watching a standup work out his personal struggles interspersed with scenes of his personal life will look familiar to fans of Louie. The relationship with Abby, at turns joyful and neurotic, also has a natural precedent in Annie Hall; the scene with the real-life Dr. Dement providing sleeping advice is especially Woody-like.
There are plenty of laughs and plenty of truth in Sleepwalk. It’s plainly autobiographical, and the choice to rename the lead character and some of the minor characters is interesting. It will puzzle some who have followed these stories through different stages, but it’s smart from a narrative standpoint. It allows Birbiglia a bit more room to shape events and change characters to heighten the drama. It’s the choice of a filmmaker. It had better be. My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend is next.
Sleepwalk With Me opens today in New York and around the country next week.