SXSW Film Festival Day 5: ‘Sleepwalk with Me’ + ‘Bernie’

Sleepwalk with Me is the film I was most looking forward to seeing at SXSW. It made waves at Sundance and is written/directed by comedian Mike Birbiglia who is one of my favorite contributors on This American Life. Ira Glass co-wrote the script with Birbiglia and produced, which only increased my anticipation about tenfold.

This is the third form that the hilarious and true story the movie is based on has taken: the stand up routine “Stranger in the Night” was a segment on This American Life on the popular “Fear of Sleep” episode, then it was a nonfiction book Sleepwalk with Me and Other Painfully True Stories, which became a one man off-broadway show, and finally (unless there’s to be a musical version?) we have Sleepwalk with Me in movie form.

In the midst of moving in with his girlfriend Abby (played by the effervescent Lauren Ambrose) and trying to start his stand up career, Birbiglia (whose name in the movie is changed to “Matt Pandamiglio”) begins to have severe sleepwalking episodes caused by R.E.M. behavior disorder. He wakes up fully clothed and soaking wet in the shower, leaps off of furniture and picks a fight with a hamper thinking it’s a jackal.

The sleepwalking incidents become more and more severe as the stress of travel, work and girlfriend Abby’s marriage/baby fever increases. There are intercut scenes with Birbiglia directly addressing the camera to say things like “Now remember… you’re on my side” right before the scene that shows him hooking up with a Hooters waitress after a gig. I can’t think of another comedy besides Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Father of the Bride that uses the “breaking the fourth wall” tactic that doesn’t seem gimmicky and actually aids the story.

I’m getting a little tired of the “my girlfriend wanted to get married and I didn’t so I had a nervous breakdown” comedy plot, but this is a true story so maybe that’s more a critique I have of the male psyche. Sleepwalk with Me is very witty and in spite of it’s slightly tired plot offers enough that is new and interesting to make this movie one that you will want to be on the lookout for.

Richard Linklater is one of the directors (counted among Robert Rodriguez and Terrance Malick) we Austinites are proud to call our own. Linklater founded The Austin Film Society in 1985 and is credited with making Austin the hub for independent filmmaking it is today. His filmography is rather eclectic: Dazed and Confused, Before Sunrise, A Scanner Darkly, School of Rock, Me and Orson Welles… I’m not sure you can really attribute a style to Linklater’s films as one rarely resembles the one that came before.

His latest film Bernie is certainly no exception. Teaming up with Jack Black once again for this dark comedy based on a true story that appeared in “Texas Monthly”. A Texas filmmaker making a film about a Texas town based on a story that appeared in Texas Monthly… yet it premiered at the Los Angeles Film Festival last year (what the frig Linklater?). But I digress.

There may be absolutely no way for you to avoid spoilers for this movie. But please, do try. I won’t spoil anything and am actually going to leave out a plot detail that appears in the official synopsis, because as someone who went into the screening completely ignorant of the story I think you will enjoy it more if you go in clueless (THANK YOU South By for leaving this aforementioned detail out of the synopsis in the program guide).

Black plays Bernie, a funeral director who is beloved by everyone in his small town of Carthage Texas for being the nicest guy in town. He coaches little league, sings in the church choir, directs local theater, cares for widows… an all around loveable guy. The opening title sequence is set to Black belting out a hymn in his car, something he does a lot of in the movie, which is nothing short of hilarious and adorable.

Shirley MacLaine plays Mrs. Nugent, a wealthy widow who is disliked by the people of Carthage for being crotchety and reclusive, but Bernie befriends. This is when things start to go awry and by the time Matthew McConaughey shows up, the shit has hit the fan.

It’s shot mockumentary style, very much in the vein of a Christopher Guest film (especially with how eccentric it is), then add to that the dark bizarreness of the Coen Brother’s Burn After Reading and you’ll start to get an idea for what you’re in for with Bernie. In the limited screenings it has had, the reception has been all over the “hated it/loved it” scale. I loved it. I mentioned Jack Black (who I can’t help but see as Po the Panda from Kung Fu Panda) sings an abundance of hymns, right? How could you resist?