“I’m going to tell you a story, and it’s true….I always have to tell people that.” So asserts comedian-turned-filmmaker Mike Birbiglia directly to the viewer at the start of his autobiographically inspired, fictional feature debut. Bringing his comedic story to life on the big screen, Birbiglia narrates the tale of “a burgeoning stand-up comedian struggling with the stress of a stalled career, a stale relationship threatening to race out of his control, and the wild spurts of severe sleepwalking he is desperate to ignore.”
Sleepwalk With Me, the title of this project, presents Matt Pandamiglio (Birbiglia’s cinematic surrogate), as he transforms his laughless comedy routine into a hysterical hit by using inspired material drawn from his enduring personal journey. But before we reach the comfort of successful comedic performances, we must bear the unease of Matt’s awkward bombing on stage. Combining his self-effacingly charming personality and incisive wit, Birbiglia smoothly captures our attention to this heartwarming comedy.
It takes a kind of crazy tenacity (or perhaps a complete lack of self-awareness) for an aspiring stand-up comedian to persist in the face of humiliating failure on stage. Matt Pandamiglio clearly has both. Pudgy and unassertive, Matt continues to sink towards the bottom as he tries to swim free from his personal anxiety-filled constraints.
At his sister’s wedding, Matt’s parents (stupendously acted by Carol Kane and James Rebhorn who find just the right mix of encouraging and annoying), constantly berate Matt with their concerns for him. They just want what’s best for their son, which of course in their eyes is a marriage. Abby (Lauren Ambrose), Matt’s loving, attractive, supportive and out of his league girlfriend, finds herself passively to aggressively pushing Matt towards a wedding, which is in the last thing Matt wants. The pressure manifests itself into vivid dreams of being chased by jackals or seduced by other women. At first, he’s reluctant to accept that he suffers from REM sleep behavior disorder, but as the stress builds, the risk of harming himself or others becomes clear.
When not focusing on awkward moments with Abby or his parents, the film recaps the first steps of Matt’s career, as he goes up and bombs in front of bored audiences. While working at his comedy bar, Matt receives a break by landing his first agent (hilarious voice-casting stalwart Sondra James), who sets him up with depressing gigs at far-flung dumps and unattended college events. Finally, it takes a late-night bar chat with renowned comedian Marc Mulheren (Marc Maron) for a light bulb to go off. By joking about what’s really on his mind — namely, his anxiety about marriage — Matt has no shortage of genuinely amusing observations to share. The only problem is that every joke is a betrayal of Abby, who’s always been his fiercest champion. Plus, Matt finds that opening up about his feelings in front of complete strangers brings him closer to the revelation that maybe he and Abby should break up.
Matt’s ordeal is not as excruciating as you might expect because he is unflappable and reasonably good-humored even in the worst of times. Though sort of a awkward, sad story, the film is full of smile to laugh-out-loud humor packed with clever and very relatable one liners. And by having Matt recount the story, giving us privy to the knowledge at the outset of the film that everything will be all right, our anxieties about laughing at another’s pain are soothed.
Masking its modest budget, the film’s lensing, music and other below-the-line contributions are polished enough that this endeavor, which was scaled back from a more ambitious production so Birbiglia could direct himself, looks and sounds better than some studio comedies.
Final Verdict: Sleepwalk With Me is a subtle gem of a film. It’s funny, accessible and will keep you invested throughout. Birbiglia proves he is not only a man of witty words but a true entertainer on screen. Viewers may even find themselves laughing at his “bad” comedy acts because of his ability to physically garner humor through his passive, modest charm. In sum, Sleepwalk With Me is more than just a glorified stand-up act but is ready to tour the cinemas as it is well worth attending.