March 08, 2013

SLEEPWALK WITH ME Blurs The Edges Of Reality

"That's love.  It's a mountain of pizza flavored ice cream.  And delusion."
I have serious love for stand up comedy.  It comes as no coincidence that my comedy idol is Steve Martin, one of the first true rock stars of comedy and the guy who redefined stand-up for a generation.  Comedy Central rose to legitimacy while I was in high school and their Friday Night Stand-Up block was not only always entertaining, but a great way to discover new talents.  In college, I fell in love with guys like Mitch Hedberg, Lewis Black and Patton Oswalt while simultaneously attending classes with soon-to-be successful guys like Harris Wittels and Joe Mande.  I even tried my own hand at stand-up once, with varying degrees of success.

I've seen some of Mike Birbiglia's act in bits and pieces over the years and found him to be both sharply clever and innately likeable.  You almost want him to walk off the stage and sit down at your table for a few drinks, not because he'd keep you entertained but because he seems like a foil for honest, thoughtful and surely amusing conversation.  That pretty well sums up Birbiglia's directorial debut Sleepwalk With Me.

The mostly autobiographical film started as Birbiglia's comedy act, turned into an episode of NPR's This American Life, then became a book before it was finally adapted for the screen.  The story revolves around Matt Pandamiglio, (a fictionalized version of Birbiglia) a fledgling comedian who's still trying to find his voice as a performer while trying to get a handle on the future of his relationship with his longtime girlfriend Abby, played by the lovely Lauren Ambrose.  Matt's comedy material is actually pretty good; he wonders if cookie monster has an eating disorder because he only eats one thing but doesn't even have a throat and later posits that perhaps the A-Team should be a little more inconspicuous seeing as they're on the run from the law.  His problem is that he lacks any real stage presence, a point that's illustrated when he does an impromptu five minutes at the club where he tends bar and neither Abby nor their friends played by David Wain and Aya Cash make any pretense of paying attention to his short set.  Meanwhile, Matt's younger sister is about to get married and while Abby isn't exactly desperate to walk down the aisle, she at least wants to know that after eight years together, the option is on the table.  Matt has serious hesitations about the very idea of marriage, but is terrified to mention them to Abby for fear of driving her away.

Matt's personal and professional stresses finally manifest themselves in the form of intense sleepwalking, causing him to physically act out whatever he's experiencing in his dreams.  It starts out innocently enough, with Matt stumbling around his bedroom and kicking his hamper because he thinks it's a jackal.  However the inherent danger quickly becomes apparent.  In the above photo, Matt's dream has him standing atop the gold metal platform after winning the Dustbuster Olympics when in reality he's standing on top of his dresser clutching his Tivo.  Rather than go see a doctor and/or talk things out with Abby, he instead throws himself headlong into his comedy after a new agent books him a number of road gigs at clubs and colleges all across the northeast.  Desperate for new material, he starts riffing on his relationship with Abby and his fears about marriage and for the first time ever, the audience actually starts to laugh.  He gains confidence on stage and his act gets better and better, but he's unsure how Abby will react to his new material.  Soon his comedy has become yet another thing Matt's afraid to talk to her about.

His success is moderate to be sure, though for Matt the very presence of laughter feels like a tremendous accomplishment.  His agent books him more and more gigs that are located farther and farther apart, and while Matt is exhausted, he also doesn't want to lose his momentum and is scared that if he tries to take a break, he'll stop getting gigs.  Much like his relationship with Abby, he labors under the delusion that if he just keeps his head down and pushes forward, eventually his problems will disappear and everything will fall into place.  His grueling schedule and the physical stresses of travel start to take their toll while Matt's sleepwalking gets worse until a sense of impending doom is swirling around his every step.  Eventually Matt is forced to confront his various stressors, though not without suffering some phsyical and emotional pain in the process.

Despite being birthed from a stand-up routine, Sleepwalk With Me is almost more drama than comedy.  Sure, there's plenty to laugh at, but at it's heart is a story about a decent guy still struggling to find his place in the world, surrounded by people who seem to have it all figured out.  Early on, when Matt is somewhat adrift and searching for direction, it certainly struck a chord with my own time trying to make it as an actor on the opposite coast.  So many careers have a clear path for success: you go to college, you take Job A, which will eventually lead to Job B, then Job C, and so on down the line until, if you work hard enough, you eventually get to wherever you want to be.  The problem with a career in the arts, whether it's acting, directing, or stand-up, is there really is no set path.  Everyone finds success differently, and overcoming that initial obstacle can sometimes be the biggest challenge.  It's enough to drive anyone a little bit crazy.

Birbiglia has a sort of earnest, low-key charm and his comfort telling what has become a well-worn story about his own life allows him to carry the film successfully.  He also wisely chooses to surround himself with a lot of talent to help carry the load.  Ambrose is marvelous as Abby, bringing an element of sincerity and grace to a role that could have very easily become two-dimensional in the hands of a lesser actress.  Carol Kane appears as Matt's flighty mother, while James Rebhorn, portrayer of memorable assholes in movies like Independence Day and Scent Of A Woman, plays Matt's no-nonsense father who just wants his son to make a decision, any decision, and get his shit together.  Birbiglia is the kind of comic that other comics love, which becomes clear with the appearance of folks like Marc Maron, Wyatt Cenac and Kristen Schaal and the previously mentioned David Wain.

The most interesting choice in the film is one of narrative device.  Birbiglia opens the movie driving his car and talking directly to camera, even acknowledging the fact that he's in a movie.  He offers narration throughout, occasionally cutting back to his future self as he continues the story while driving to his next gig.  I'm sure this decision was a way to keep from losing some of Birbiglia's favorite lines from the stand-up version, but it in an odd way it totally works.  Allowing the character to comment back on his own actions with a healthy dose of perspective actually prevents the story from getting too maudlin and helps to balance the pacing of the movie, which clocks in at a brisk 80 minutes.

Clever stand-up comedy and relationship-based indie dramas both fall squarely in my wheelhouse, so in many ways Sleepwalk With Me is practically tailor-made for yours truly.  I'm certainly ready to seek out some of Birbiglia's old stand-up, as I'm curious to see which parts of the story were fleshed out or scaled back for the big screen.  Obviously the story is very personal, which becomes even more obvious during the credits when we see real life pictures of some of the damage caused by his sleepwalking, as well as Birbiglia himself covered in wires and sensors while undergoing a sleep study.  I wouldn't be surprised if his future filmmaking ambitions did not extend beyond this impressive debut, but I for one hope to see Birbiglia continue down this new path.  The guy is a natural storyteller, and I have a sneaking suspicion he's got a few more great tales to tell.

Title: Sleepwalk With Me
Director: Mike Birbiglia
Starring: Mike Birbiglia, Lauren Ambrose, James Rebhorn, Carol Kane
Year Of Release: 2012
Viewing Method: Netflix Instant (TV)

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