Sleepwalk With Me

  • Year:2012
  • Rating:M
  • Director:Seth Barrish, Mike Birbiglia
  • Cast:Lauren Ambrose, Mike Birbiglia, Carol Kane, James Rebhorn
  • Release Date:April 04, 2013
  • Distributor:Sharmill Films
  • Running time:81 minutes
  • Film Worth:$17.00
  • FILMINK rates movies out of $20 - the score indicates the amount we believe a ticket to the movie to be worth

A funny and poignant portrait of a conflicted aspiring comedian, which plays with all the ease and intimacy of a memorable stand-up routine.

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As Sleepwalk With Me begins, its protagonist stares directly at the camera, and asks the audience to switch off their phones, and then proceeds to inform viewers that the story that’s about to unfold is true. But as fans of the film’s writer, director and star, Mike Birbiglia, will know, what’s closer to the truth is that the soon-to-unspool tale sits somewhere between fiction and autobiography. A popular stand-up comedian, Birbiglia is basically playing a version of himself in his debut feature (co-directed by Seth Barrish), which is itself based on his one-man show that he toured extensively to rave reviews. The show spawned a comedy album, a bestselling book, regular gigs for Birbiglia on the popular American radio series, This American Life, and now…a movie. It was the famed host of that latter radio show, Ira Glass, who signed on to co-write and produce the film, which scooped up the Audience Award at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, and it’s easy to see why. It’s warm, candid and funny, but just like the most memorable stand-up routines, there’s a twinge of tragedy and pathos in the mix that make the laughs linger and the story stick.

Birbiglia plays Matt, a guy who’s nearing thirty and feels as though his life has stalled. Though his long-time girlfriend, Abby (Six Feet Under’s Lauren Ambrose), is stunning, supportive and pretty much out of his league, Matt just can’t seem to commit to their relationship. He’s also irritated by the fact that everyone seems to think that Abby is the best thing about his life, one that also includes a lame job as a bartender at a comedy club where he aspires to perform. But while Matt’s existential drama might seem to suggest that he’s a natural for stand-up, the problem is that he’s just not that funny. But in an almost cruelly ironic twist, as Matt’s relationship begins to disintegrate, he finally hits upon good material. It’s a fitting insight into his state of mind that his first joke to garner a real laugh is the wannabe comedian confessing that “I’m not going to get married until I’m sure nothing else good can happen in my life.” Not exactly the best foundation for a marriage…

Matt’s growing anxiety over the prospect of either proposing to Abby or losing her manifests itself physically in a behavioral disorder called Rapid Eye Movement, a condition that the real-life Birbiglia suffers from, and which forms the other part of this story. Easily trumping the dangers of mere sleepwalking, it’s a rare disease that causes sufferers to act out their dreams physically, sometimes to the peril of themselves and others. And as Matt’s nocturnal condition worsens, it becomes the perfect metaphor – one that’s mined for all its dark humour, but never feels heavy-handed – to symbolise the fact that our protagonist is sleepwalking through his whole life.

As someone stuck in a funk of confusion, frustration and apathy, Matt sounds like the typical man-child, but thanks to Birbiglia’s weary but warm presence, he always remains empathetic. Yes, we may grow impatient with him, but we also never doubt that his insecurities stem from a real and painful ambivalence. But providing a fresh spin is the fact that we’re seeing these dilemmas play out from the perspective of a stand-up comedian, a breed of people Matt deems “a little delusional.” Like Judd Apatow’s Funny People, Sleepwalk With Me also peels back the curtain on this world, and reveals all the insecurities and resentments at play, but via a more personal viewpoint. From the outset, we’re intrigued and almost baffled as to why a seemingly shy guy like Matt would feel so compelled to travel to far-flung places for pitiful money only to stand on a stage that opens him up to rejection and ridicule. And this film goes a considerable way to answering that. While we’re privy to the sinking feeling when a stand-up routine bombs, we also sense the satisfying triumph when Matt’s jokes connect with people. Somewhat poignantly, it’s on stage that Matt finally taps into his true fears and frustrations about the future, as well as his deep dissatisfaction with myriad aspects of his life.

For a film about a stand-up comedian that’s largely lifted from a live show, it’s to Birbiglia’s credit that we experience Sleepwalk With Me like a stand-up routine in many ways. It feels intimate and largely unfiltered. Anecdotes are relayed via snapshot glances and monologues. Abby may seem underdeveloped or shortchanged, but this isn’t her story, and it never pretends to be. “Remember, you’re on my side,” Matt implores the audience at one point. But we don’t need to be reminded. There’s never any doubt.

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