Stand-up comic Mike Birbiglia’s movie Sleepwalk With Me is the story if a standup comic named Matt Birbiglia, which should be enough to tip you off that this wry, heartfelt and very funny story is heavily autobiographical. Then again, I’m not even sure whether the autobiographical component matters all that much to anyone besides close personal friends of Mike Birbiglia, of whom I am not one. What matters, I guess, is whether the story is interesting, and engaging, and funny enough to make us laugh out loud a few times (it is about a stand-up comic after all). The answer to all of these questions is a resounding yes.
So, Birbiglia plays himself or someone mighty close to it, which is to say, a wannabe comedian who tends bar at a local comedy club. Matt has been dating the same woman for eight years, and although the tension is suggested rather than spelled out, the supernaturally patient Abby is ready for things to progress along to the next point. Matt, however, is unwilling or unable to make that next step, for reasons of, y’know, one thing or another… And anyway he’s starting to have these weird sleepwalking incidents which are really starting to freak him out. And also, his comedy career? It’s just starting to really take off.
Mike Birbiglia’s coming-of-age story (?) is very funny indeed, Except that it’s not. As anyone who has ever suffered through lame standup knows, there are few things more painful than watching someone stand onstage telling unfunny jokes. And Matt’s jokes are about as unfunny as they get. (“Hey, how about that Cookie Monster?... Does that guy have an eating disorder or what?”)
There are shades of Annie Hall here, to be sure: the self-deprecating main character who periodically breaks the fourth wall to speak directly to the audience; the preoccupation with a romantic relationship that may or may not be ready to move to the next phase; the occupation of the protagonist; the overall wry, sardonic tone. But Birbiglia isn’t Woody Allen—for one thing, he’s a lot more fuzzy and likeable—and his movie comes off less as document of his creator’s neuroses and more as the story of a guy who is, reluctantly, coming to terms with adult life.
After a chance encounter with another comic, Matt begins to incorporate real-life material into his routines—jokes about his own insecurities, and his girlfriend’s shortcomings, and his wacky family’s expectations. This new material is a great deal funnier than the old stuff, and against all odds, Matt finds himself becoming a successful comic. This causes him to spend much more time on the road, traveling from gig to gig, causing further stress to his already-rickety relationship. Oh and those sleepwalking incidents? They’re getting worse.
Sleepwalk With Me has already appeared in book form, and Birbiglia has also starred in a one-man off-Broadway show of his own, so this material has been around for some time. For those who, like me, are unfamiliar with these other incarnations, the story still feels fresh, and Birbiglia’s laconic delivery is very funny, indeed.
The performances are excellent all around. Birbiglia is the glue that holds the story together, but it’s more of an ensemble than appears at first, with Lauren Ambrose doing an especially fine job as Abby. It’s a tricky balancing act to play the woman who is ambitious enough to want more for herself but not so selfish as ot undermine her lover’s aspirations; Ambrose treads the line skillfully. Besides this there’s the always-delightful Carol Kane (hey! Another Annie Hall link!) playing Birbiglia’s mother. What more could you ask for?
The blu-ray edition of the film contains numerous extras, including a lengthy panel discussion/Q&A moderated by Joss Whedon in which he chats with Birbiglia and director Ira Glass (host of NPR’s This American Life, for which Birbiglia is a frequent contributor). There are a number of behind-the-scenes vignettes and some outtake scenes, which are interesting enough but not crucial. The commentary track with Glass and Birbiglia is entertaining too, but at times feels a trifle redundant, given that the movie itself is, essentially, a commentary by Birbiglia on events from his own life. Still, their comments are funny enough, as you would expect from a pair like this, and their insights are interesting at times, especially as they relate to the shaping of the material as it was transformed from book to stage to film.
Sleepwalk With Me is well worth a look for viewers seeking an intelligent comedy that doesn’t contain a lot of jokes about dicks, farts and food spewing from people’s mouths. Relationships provide the comic material here, and family, and our own innate absurdities. Mike Birbiglia is a talented guy, and a funny one. It will be interesting to see what he does next.