Sleepwalk with Me (IFC Films, NR)

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sleepwalk 75The film is highly autobiographical of Birbiglia’s life on stage and off, which allows an easy transition of signature brand of comedy into the medium of film.

 

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Anyone who has ever entertained the thought, however briefly, of becoming a stand-up comic should watch Sleepwalk with Me before embarking on that arduous and lonely journey. The film was co-written and directed by Mike Birbiglia, a comic whose fame has been on a steady rise for the last decade or so, thanks to endless college appearances, successful live recordings and consistent appearances on radio programs actually worth listening to. Sleepwalk with Me is highly autobiographical of Birbiglia’s life on stage and off, which allows an easy transition of signature brand of comedy into the medium of film.

Matt Pandamiglio (Birbiglia) dreams of becoming a stand-up comic but hasn’t had much success. He works as a bartender at a Chicago comedy club, occasionally filling in when a real comedian is running late or drops out. His girlfriend, Abby (Lauren Ambrose), believes in him wholeheartedly and has since they started dating in college…eight years ago. The extreme duration of their relationship, with no prospect of marriage, is noticed by everyone—except Matt. His parents, Frank (James Rebhorn) and Linda (Carol Kane), each have their own approaches in encouraging Matt to propose to Abby: She points out how sweet and considerate Abby is; he bluntly says it’s ridiculous they’ve been together so long and haven’t gotten married.

Around this time, two things happen. First, Matt gets a small break when he meets a booking agent who thinks she might be able to get some work at a few local colleges. Soon, he is booking gigs all over the country as he builds his material and onstage persona. This is complicated by the second development: Matt begins sleepwalking. A lot. At first he just wanders around the apartment, but soon he is fighting trash-cans-turned-bears and climbing bookshelves to accept Olympic medals. Abby and Frank are both concerned, and encourage Matt to see a sleep specialist. His career is finally showing some chance of succeeding, though, so he keeps putting it off, a decision that ultimately threatens both his physical safety and his relationship with Abby.

Anyone familiar with Birbiglia’s stand-up will recognize plenty of material culled from his acts, used either as jokes in Matt’s routines or situations within the film’s story. In his directorial debut, Birbiglia doesn’t make a huge leap forward, but he shows confidence and promise that he may have a knack for translating his natural storytelling abilities into the format of film.

Birbiglia is very much playing a version of himself, but that’s okay. His comfort level with his acting ability allows him to focus more attention behind the camera. The film moves along briskly, rarely stalling or going off on unnecessary tangents. As a director, Birbiglia makes very few stylistic choices beyond having himself narrate the story by talking directly to the audience, but the film still has a feel of uniqueness, possibility from the very laidback sense of timing that Birbiglia embodies on stage.

The best part of the film, aside from the script, which is filled with Birbiglia’s trademark sense of humor, is Ambrose as Matt’s supposed partner. As the two grow further apart, Ambrose is able to show more and more depth, add a wholly different emotional core to the film. Birbiglia’s wisest choice was casting the actress, who so rarely gets the attention she deserves from her wonderful performances.

Sleepwalk with Me manages to be both funny and honest, touching on conflicts that most audiences will easily recognize in their own lives. Birbiglia is clearly comfortable and competent both as an actor and director, so let’s hope this isn’t the last we hear from him. | Matthew Newlin

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