You'll be hard-pressed to find a movie this year as willing to be liked as Sleepwalk with Me. Mike Birbiglia's film debut, adapting his own comedy/play/book to the big screen alongside some of his This American Life cohorts, is a friendly indie effort. It begins with Birbiglia introducing himself and setting up the film's narrative throughline--that the comedian is our host and he will be telling his story while driving toward some narrative destination. It's a feigned intimacy. Just a couple of buddies out on the road.
This works in Sleepwalk's favor. Despite the odd decision to change the lead character's name to Matt Pandamiglio, this is Birbiglia's story. It's his well-crafted and well-traveled memoir about the year or so when he got his crap together as a comedian while basically destroying his relationship with Abby, his long-term girlfriend (played here by Six Feet Under's Lauren Ambrose). After eight years of dating, the two have only just managed to move in together. The fault for this falls squarely on Matt's shoulders. He is afraid to move forward in anything. He's got eleven minutes of jokes, all of which he's been telling since college. He's comfortable with the concepts of "nothing" and "nowhere," but Abby is not.
Pressure mounts after Matt's sister gets engaged, and that starts to have an odd effect on Matt. His anxiety begins to manifest as sleepwalking. He lives out his dreams in real time, climbing out of bed and climbing on dressers or running down hotel hallways, whatever the nightmare demands. Some of the scenarios get dangerous, and rather than deal with this problem--or any of the core causes--Matt gets focused on comedy and stays out on the road for weeks at a time. While away from home, he starts to find his footing, mostly by opening up about his relationship while behind the microphone. Granted, Abby would probably be horrified if she knew her life was being put on display for total strangers, but being on tour constitutes many little betrayals that will eventually pile up for Matt, ending in his worst sleepwalking yet.
Sleepwalk with Me is possessed of a frankness that is rare yet oh so essential to a personality-driven movie of this kind. Much of how you will react to the film relies on how you react to Birbiglia. He's a funny guy, and very genial, if at times whiny and frustrating. You will likely find yourself pondering why Abby stays with him when his problems seem so clear. She's pretty and smart and has a good job, not even Matt/Mike can fathom why she sticks around. The movie eventually tries to answer that question, and the explanation is surprisingly lacking in profundity. It stuns Birbiglia, too, though he does make an error in judgment in thinking our bewilderment at the simplicity of it all is enough of an exit for a story this size. Sleepwalk with Me is a brisk 80-minutes that tapers off more than it ends. There doesn't seem to be much take-away here. The author was afraid to face his issues, and when he did, they weren't as bad as he thought. He strikes a balance, accepting some of the things he can't change, and moves on. Over and done.
I have to admit, the resolution was pretty unsatisfying. The end music should have been Peggy Lee's "Is That All There Is?" I have only heard part of Birbiglia's one-man show working with the same routines, but it seems like some of what was lost, despite his attempts to wedge it in there, was his knack for a well-crafted observation. Our sympathies are drawn in different directions when we are seeing the people his behavior affects rather than just hearing his impression of them. We're also left to reconcile the vibrant commentator we see emerging on stage with the detached slacker we see stumbling through life. We're in the car with that later version. He reminds us that he's in the future, too. In that sense, we know it will get better.
It helps, then, that Birbiglia surrounds himself with an excellent cast and keeps the focus sharp. The tight running time means Sleepwalk with Me doesn't have opportunities for tangents. Birbiglia puts this thing on the tracks and sends it straight down the line toward the destination. Some of the dream sequences prove a little more than the first-time director (along with co-director Sean Barrish) can handle; the more elaborate ones in particular come off as contrived and cliché. The best involves a rather unappealing way to eat pizza, and like the rest of the film, benefits from staying simple.
I realize that this review sure lays out a lot of complaints for a movie I'm telling you I liked. The thing is, none of these things really bothered me all that much while I was watching Sleepwalk with Me, not to the extent that I ever wanted to stop watching. Maybe it's a byproduct of the intimacy Birbiglia has created. Once you've been let into his life, you're a part of it, and like everyone else around him, you want Mike/Matt to do better. Thus, you end up sticking it out until he does.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the superhero series It Girl and the Atomics and the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.