Mike Birbiglia follows in the footsteps of comedians like Woody Allen, Larry David, and Louis C.K. who use semi-autobiographical films or television shows as a vehicle for their jokes. Birbiglia’s first directorial effort Sleepwalk with Me is admittedly less funny than the work of the aforementioned comedy veterans, but it has an undeniable charm that will appeal to both longtime fans of the 32-year old comic and people who are coming to his work for the very first time.
For anybody who has followed Birbiglia’s career even casually, the subject of Sleepwalk with Me is nothing new. His struggles with sleepwalking and its effect on daily life have been turned into a stand-up routine, a one-man play, a comic memoir, a segment on the radio show “This American Life” and now a feature film. The 90-minute running time allows for him to expand on his rise to stardom and the relationship struggles that plague him along the way. With a good eye for visual storytelling and the wisdom to trust his fellow actors, Birbiglia shows definite promise both behind and in front of the camera.
Like Woody Allen and Louis C.K., Birbiglia shows how sadness and disappointment off-stage inspire his stand-up comedy. Sleepwalk with Me contrasts its central character Matt Pandamiglio’s gradual rise to comedic fame with the disintegration of his 8-year relationship with girlfriend Abby (Lauren Ambrose). Despite inconsistent support from his father (James Rebhorn) and mother (Carol Kane), Pandamiglio is determined to succeed in stand-up comedy and travels around the Northeastern U.S. performing at bars and hole-in-the-wall clubs for around $20 to $50 per show.
The sleep depravity associated with constant travel has added another unexpected obstacle to Pandamiglio’s ascent – a dangerous sleepwalking habit. A dream sequence wherein our protagonist is receiving a gold medal for Dust Bustering morphs into Pandamiglio’s living room where he is standing off-balance on a bookshelf. Most of the sleepwalking sequences are right out of Birbiglia’s stand-up with a voice-over that is a word for word repeat of his segments on “This American Life,” not particularly surprising because “This American Life” creator and host Ira Glass was one of the movie’s four co-writers. The sleepwalking scenes are actually the least funny parts of the movie, partly because they look and sound a lot like recitation and do not reflect the natural, off-the-cuff feel of the rest of the movie.
Luckily, Birbiglia has the wisdom to ensure that Sleepwalk with Me is not just about his stand-up. When we see highlights from Pandamiglio’s early stand-up days we repetitively hear him tell the same two jokes until they are stale. This is smartly contrasted with laid back off-stage conversations and awkward real-life scenarios – offering Birbiglia’s commentary on the basis of comedy: material should come organically out of the absurdity of daily life, rather than from manufactured jokes. It’s not an original view (Charlie Chaplin presented it in his 1928 film The Circus), but it’s a well-executed take.
The movie is at its funniest when Birbiglia is receiving support from fellow comics. Rising names in comedy like Wyatt Cenac, Kristen Schaal, and Jessi Klein all have improvised scenes of dialogue with Birbiglia that are honest, hilarious, and fascinating in their truthful expressions of how hard they work for small victories like one big laugh while on stage. It adds one more layer of depth to the various television shows and podcasts that allow comedians to stop telling jokes and open up about their frustrations. Birbiglia leaves most of these interactions unscripted and let’s the camera linger on each comedian; he gets to play the club owner for once and give each of his friends their five minutes in the spotlight.
Ultimately, Sleepwalk with Me is about the difficult priorities of being an adult. Birbiglia continually puts off getting help for his sleep disorder because he is too busy avoiding his girlfriend and pursuing stand-up gigs. However, to be complete he has to let go of his ego and put everything out in the open. Basically, the same principles that make a good stand-up can make a good person.
Bottom Line: Sleepwalk with Me has enough charm and laughs for anyone, no matter how familiar they are with Birbiglia’s story.