Mike Birbiglia announces himself as a cinematic talent to watch out for with the endearing indie dramedy ‘Sleepwalk With Me’. The film works as not just a character study or a relationship tale, but as a look at the life of a struggling stand up comedian as well. Birbiglia pulls from real life here, adapting his one man show (which also showed up on the radio in various forms, including on NPR for “This American Life”, where he came into contact with co-writer/co-producer Ira Glass) for this script which he co-wrote and directed. The comedian-turned-playwright-turned-filmmaker really has a future in cinema after conquering the stand up and stage world with his tale of sleepwalking and early adulthood struggles. I was incredibly charmed not just by his performance, but by the story on the whole. What could have been just a long form interpretation of his stage act, but Birbiglia isn’t satisfied with that and instead goes in many ways the Woody Allen route. There’s more than a bit of ‘Annie Hall’ in this flick, and even if it’s not quite on that level, this is still a great movie and one of the 20 best of 2012 so far. Every bit of his work is excellent, but it’s also surrounded by great work from Lauren Ambrose as his girlfriend. Aside from a bit of a tonal inconsistency at times, there’s almost nothing not to like about this film.
Matt (Birbiglia) assures us at the outset that everything we’re about to see is true. Since Birbiglia is basically playing himself, that gives the plot that follows an interesting slant, as we don’t wonder how much of it is fact or fiction. Basically we’re seeing a slice of his life when he was in a long term relationship with Abby (Ambrose), struggling to make it as a comic, and dealing with the beginnings of a sleeping disorder. You see, Matt has been dating Abby for about 8 years now, and when his sister Janet (Cristin Milioti) gets engaged, they begin confronting the possibility that their relationship is going nowhere. Abby wants to get married, but Matt is stuck in a sort of post college slump, more concerned with figuring himself out than actually moving ahead with his life. He wants to be a successful comedian, but at the moment he’s just a bartender who occasionally gets to go onstage for a set. Two things change that for him. One is when he begins getting gigs that send him out on the road all over the place, and the other that Matt begins sleepwalking. These things put a real strain on his relationship, as he has to balance her needs, the advice of his parents (Carol Kane and James Rebhorn), and his desire to avoid full on commitment. As his sleepwalking gets worse, he finds out some harsh truths about his life, in all forms. This may sound serious, but it’s also terrifically funny as well.
Mike Birbiglia isn’t going to get an Oscar nomination for this role, but he plays a version of himself in such a way that you buy him as a character…no easy task. Obviously taking from experience, he aptly charts Matt’s evolution from an immature wannabe comic to a working stand up and more adult human being, all the while finding the humor and pathos in the situations. He’s also just incredibly charming, which doesn’t hurt things at all. Lauren Ambrose is playing a level headed modern woman and she plays it well. Her character isn’t given too much to do between the middle of the second act and the second half of the third act, but she makes the most of her scenes. The supporting crew only has a few scenes to make their mark, and both Carol Kane and James Rebhorn are perfect as Matt’s parents. Plenty of comics make cameos including Wyatt Cenac, Marc Maron, and Amy Schumer, while the likes of David Wain, Kristen Schaal, and Loudon Wainwright III show up for a quick moment as well. This is still completely Birbiglia’s show though, and he’s a well cast leading man, even if it’s just his own story that he’s telling.
There really aren’t too many directorial flourishes from which to judge if Birbiglia is going to be a director to reckon with (aside from his dream/sleepwalking sequences, which are a hoot and done in an incredibly creative way), but his writing is pretty high class and the direction is hardly bad. He’s not showy and lets others have their moment, which speaks to the collaborative process with which he created the script, fine tuning and adapting his show with the help of Seth Barrish, Joe Birbiglia, and Ira Glass. As a director, he moves things along at a great pace, always making sure no scene is too heavy or too light. The breaking of the fourth wall is also handled interestingly, giving the flick a unique vibe. The screenplay is well written and really snaps while still being realistic. Birbiglia is supposedly working on a new film now, and I’m very interested in seeing what he does next. He knows bow to make a high quality movie, so he’s good to go for a few more in my book.
‘Sleepwalk With Me’ is the sort of charming little indie that struggles to make a name for itself in the crowded marketplace, but something this enjoyable deserves to distinguish itself from the pack. It’s a cut above and hopefully represents the cinematic coming out party for multi hyphenate Mike Birbiglia. He’s a good stand up comic, but I’m going to go out on a limb and see he might be a better filmmaker than anything else. Time will tell, but I’m excited for his future. I highly recommend checking this flick out, as it’s likely to make you smile. It may not be quite as upbeat as you’d expect, but it’s honest, realistic, and a great time at the cinemas. Give it a shot…I expect you’ll like the film just as much as I did.
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