SLEEPWALK WITH ME
DIRECTED BY MIKE BIRBIGLIA & SETH BARRISH
I guess, after reading reviews from other critics on this film, that I actually was aware of Mike Birbiglia’s REM sleep behavioral disorder, a disorder that causes him to act out his dreams, and the crazy-but-true stories of those incidents in the THIS AMERICAN LIFE episode ‘Fear of Sleep’. Birbiglia’s stories on radio, actually a recording to a live-audience of his one-man show of the same name, is very entertaining and translating visually may seem not too hard of a task. But seeing SLEEPWALK WITH ME, that Birbiglia co-wrote, directed, and starred in, showed the truly surreal and silliness of something serious in a sleep disorder and did get serious when necessary. But what really makes SLEEPWALK WITH ME more than just a personal tale that could be seen as a goyish Woody Allen type of film is in fact a very polite, nice, honest film about entering the world of stand-up.
Birbiglia is essentially still playing himself, under the name Matt Pandamiglio, in the same situation as a college grad who lives in the city being a bartender who occasionally gets to do stand-up. As his younger sister Janet (Cristin Milioti aka Girl in the musical ONCE and the infamous ‘sexy baby’ comedian in 30 ROCK) is moving toward marrying, pressure from his parents (Carol Kane and the veteran character actor James Rebhorn) are pressuring him to find a path in his life, namely to finally settle down and marry his long-time girlfriend, Abby (Lauren Ambrose aka Claire in SIX FEET UNDER). If you are familiar with Birbiglia’s stand-up act and one-man show or heard his contributions on THIS AMERICAN LIFE, some of the beats in this story are very familiar if exactly how he has told his story before.
Ambrose as Abby is, of course, very charming. It is interesting that Birbiglia and Ira Glass (who produced and also co-write some of the script) mentioned that how to portray Matt and Abby’s relationship and its trajectory started very problematic that included re-writes and cut scenes after audience feedback in the rough cuts did not buy Abby and Matt as a couple in the beginning of the film. I have a feeling I know which scenes were added or re-written (Glass and Birbiglia also mentioned in a Q & A that I was present at that a scene where Abby sees Matt’s stand-up was cut) to ease that contention with the audience and I bought them as a two people who liked each other but each with problems and insecurities over the looming question of marriage and commitment. Birbiglia makes his character the screw-up and is very self-aware in how he screwed up everything on that front. Not sure how much that corresponded in real life but taking the brunt of that, while also convincing the audience to still follow along, was pretty ballsy. Again, this speaks to the Woody Allen type of story-telling in breaking the fourth wall, talking to the camera, and just being very self-reflecting and self-deprecating which in Birbiglia’s case we are in his Volvo station wagon on the road hearing him out. This might sound easy and you wonder why do not all comedy films that star stand-ups do this type of storytelling so heavily based in their acts. Well for one thing, not all stand-up can translate well to the big screen (television is the preferred medium). Woody Allen’s stand-up did and so does Birbiglia, a stand-up routine that is pretty clean in terms of content and also incredibly self-deprecating— because what else can you do when you talk about dreaming of eating a pizza pillow in your dreams?
The film on Birbiglia/Pandamiglio having relationship anxieties corresponds with his stand-up career moving forward, beginning by taking college gigs in the Northeast that other comedians refuse. His routine is not nearly enough to cover the time he has and Matt/Mike’s step into the unknown world of stand-up is very palpable in the early scenes. He does get credit for putting himself out there even in the less desirable locations, which for it being one of his first gigs surprises him. But then, on the advice of others, he starts to talk about stuff he is clearly is most at ease speaking about, his family and relationships. At first, others are surprised what he is saying is true, because of the honesty in the act and it really hits with crowds. Soon, he gets booked in far more places. As he gets more immersed in the stand-up world, he hangs out with other comedians (most of them are just presented as themselves than any stand-ins for a certain ‘damaged’ or ‘genius’ comedian), travels to places that are not exactly the Comedy Store or whatever Louis C.K. gets booked these days, but he is having a great time, finding his voice and discovery something he is really good at. He is also, with his increasing schedule and travel hours, really making his REM sleep behavioral disorder worse over time, including missing studies on how he can get better treatment. What happens to Matt is something simply organic and medical, not in any way supposed to symbolize anything like say, Alvy Singer getting a headache that causes him to cancel his guest spot on the Hollywood laugh-track sitcom in ANNIE HALL because he is morally and ethically against Hollywood. His disorder is shown at the beginning when he was just a bartender with some material and its increasing frequency when showing his new career path is understandable.
Birbiglia’s film presents the stand-up world as a group of understanding misfits that embrace their insularity, conversations about when they ‘bombed’ the hardest, encouraging each other to use such-and-such in their act, and their schedules that seem so taxing but are so worth it when they kill it that one night. The family stuff and the sleepwalk scenes touch the right balance of neuroticism, sweetness, silliness, believability and surrealism that build to a climatic scene of infamy at a La Quinta Inn. For fans of the stand-up comedy world, even if Birbiglia seems like too clean of a comic, this is a must-see (and the who’s who of stand-up comedian cameos should be enough of an endorsement) and for fans of Birbiglia this is a very enjoyable, nice film of the act and stories that has no real high ambitions except in good storytelling. For those who are in neither camp, Birbiglia is a very palatable and charming storyteller to draw you in as a viewer. I highly recommend this film.