“The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way.” - William Blake
By Michael Sarko
- The Capitol Hill Times -
Comedian Mike Birbiglia is almost too laid-back for his own good. The casual, soft-spoken nature that makes him such an engaging performer has also resulted in a movie that is so low-impact that it’s more like a meandering conversation than a story. How much you enjoy “Sleepwalk With Me,” Birbiglia’s writing, directing and acting debut, depends on how much you want your films to be filmic.
“Sleepwalk With Me” is the autobiographical story of how Mike Birbiglia got into stand-up comedy, navigated his first serious relationship, and developed a rare sleep disorder that causes him to act out his dreams. Birbiglia has already told this tale twice. He put on a one-man, off-Broadway show years ago and published a companion book about his experiences. Critical and popular acclaim has followed him all the way to Sundance, where “Sleepwalk With Me” won the Best of NEXT Audience Award, and now to a grassroots campaign to get the film screened in more theaters across the nation. Support from the likes of geek god Joss Whedon put a fire under the campaign and now “Sleepwalk” is playing in small theaters in 125 cities nationwide. The Harvard Exit Theater in Capitol Hill is one such venue.
Birbiglia dropped in at both of the Friday shows of “Sleepwalk With Me” at the Harvard Exit last week. In-person introductions have become part of the film’s promotional model.
“We’ve been traveling across the country like carnies,” Birbiglia told the audience at the second Friday show. The comic certainly has a way with people, at least behind the fuzzy veil of awkwardness that may have once been genuine but is now just another part of the act. Before “Sleepwalk” rolled, Birbiglia had a conversation with a local woman who also struggles with REM Behavior Disorder and signed the cast she got on her leg from a tumble off a cliff during an especially vivid dream.
The one-on-one tone of Birbiglia’s stage style persists into the movie. It opens with the comic driving down a toll road and speaking directly to the camera as he begins narrating his own life story. It’s never clear why he trades in his own name for the similar, if slightly harder to spell, Matt Pandamiglio. Perhaps it’s just there for a few throwaway jokes mostly revolving around botched stage introductions.
“Sleepwalk” continues to move with the rhythm and purpose of a stand-up routine. It’s less of a cohesive story and more of a stream of consciousness that sets up jokes on Birbiglia’s favorite themes. It has too much purpose to be a slice-of-life, too few consequences to be a dramedy and too little industry talk to be a backstage pass into the world of stand-up comedy. Instead, “Sleepwalk” is a sampler tray of all those things. It has plenty of entertaining and creatively shot moments, but no overarching sense of purpose. That’s the risk of autobiography: life is rarely so neat and focused as fiction.
Birbiglia’s supporting cast fall into two camps. In one, his friends and family exist as fun caricatures that feel like they belong in the heightened reality of a much broader comedy. In the other, a cavalcade of comics saunter through the story to dispense advice and make the most of a cameo. This is a big part of what creates that nagging desire for “Sleepwalk” to be one kind of movie the whole way through, rather than two or three different movies braided together.
James Rebhorn and Carol Kane are delightful scene-stealers as Birbiglia’s parents. They make great comic foils that balance movies-only silliness with the kinds of idiosyncrasies that tend to pop up in lovable folks from real life. Likewise, the indie-friendly murderer’s row of comedians Birbiglia meets on the road make their scenes a comedy geek’s candy store. The likes of Marc Maron, Kristen Schaal and Wyatt Cenac grace the screen briefly but memorably.
Lauren Ambrose gets the most screen time next to Birbiglia, playing his girlfriend, Abby. Ambrose is a fine actress, but it’s not clear who her character is. She doesn’t get any time to flesh out as a person and is mostly just a source of support, stress, or conflict when it’s convenient. Once again, the culprit here is the fact that “Sleepwalk” is split between so many different stories. There just isn’t enough time to make Abby an interesting character while also getting Matt on the road and occasionally stuck in his own dreams.
“Sleepwalk With Me” is slight, frequently funny, and not a bad introduction to Mike Birbiglia’s addictive stand-up style. It’s also an interesting case study in the economic power of Internet fandom. Overall, it can best be summarized as:
Rating: The Neck Pillow Made of Pizza From Mike’s Dream– Funny, may seem like a good idea, may even be enjoyable in the moment, but ultimately unfulfilling and kind of a mess.
At the Harvard Exit Theater, 807 East Roy