Writers may dream about blog-to-book deals, and comics about transforming open-mic nights into sitcom gold. Few could have imagined Mike Birbiglia’s tangled path from Moth Story Slam star, to This American Life, to one-man show and book, and now, romantic comedy lead.
Sleepwalk with Me, adapted from the 2008 one-man show, is a surreally hilarious, though narratively loose, portrait of an aspiring comic, his relationship with his girlfriend, and the sleepwalking disorder that hilariously, from our point of view, stresses their already fracturing relationship.
Birbiglia plays Matt Pandamiglio, a struggling stand-up comic dealing with the various post-college indignities of survival jobs to pay the bills while honing his craft. The comic, whose affable narration helps give the movie much-needed structure, knows this territory all too well; he plays his alter ego as a bit of schlub, but with a stubborn streak, and a way of diffusing a situation with the right application of a smile or a smirk, and a crinkle of his blue eyes.
This charm makes it slightly more believable that Abby, played with saint-like good humor and grace by Lauren Ambrose, would have stayed with him for eight years of waffling over whether to get married. Ambrose has some great facial expressions of her own, and Abby coerces Matt to rent an apartment with a few well-timed pouts. Still, the script doesn’t give her much of a backstory or backbone, aside from her relationship to Matt.
Character development (aside from Matt’s) is not the movie’s strong point–it is based on a one-man show–though the rest of the cast tries. Carol Kane is delightfully deranged and kooky as his mother, and comedians including Mark Maron, Jessi Klein and Hannibal Burress all make enjoyable but brief appearances on Matt’s road journeys. The visualization of all of the crazy dreams Birbiglia describes, his up for anything delivery, and the insider’s eye view of Matt’s attempts to build his comedy career are the real reasons to see Sleepwalk with Me.
The fledgling comic plot point is particularly compelling. Topics include how having a thick skin is just as important as air-tight jokes, the constant haggling for stage time, even if what you’re haggling for is basically the chance to elicit groans and watch checking for ten minutes while you figure out not just how to tell jokes. How not to publicly vomit, and of course, the time on the road, also make the how-to-be-a- comic list. It’s on the road that Birbiglia’s jokes finally begin to connect with audiences, but many of them like “I decided I’m not going to get married until I’m sure that nothing else good can happen in my life,” do not bode well for his romantic future.
The road is also where Birbiglia’s sleepwalking adventures really shine. He gnaws on bed sheets thinking they’re a neck pillow made of pizza offered by the attractive fellow comedian in his dream; destroys a janitor’s cart; and even flies through a second-story window as a result of a dream in which a missile attack is headed straight for his hotel room. It’s absurd, hilarious, and touching at the same time, much like the movie itself, and (literally and figuratively), a jumping off point for Pandamiglio’s standup and his life.