If you’re an avid This American Life listener—and you should be—Mike Birbiglia’s funny, anecdotal shtick won’t be anything new. In fact, the actual details of his life, which routinely make it into his stand-up and the essays he occasionally broadcasts on the popular radio show, should also be familiar. The film is a recap of his professional development as a comedian and the method by which he began incorporating his personal life into his work. Birbiglia co-writes along with TAL creator Ira Glass, co-directs with actor and theater director Seth Barrish, and stars alongside Six Feet Under’s Lauren Ambrose. The two play Matt and Abby—fictionalized versions of Mike and his one-time fiancée—who struggle with Matt’s inability to commit to marriage and his frequent exploitation of their lives for a laugh.
If you’re easily scared off by the rom-com, Sleepwalk With Me is about as disarming as they come. It’s far more com than rom, and Birbiglia has an impressive ability to win over the audience. Just when you think you’re ready to quit giving this sad sack another ounce of your attention, he stumbles, like a new puppy, and the pathos begins anew. Birbiglia is not exactly acting here, as he’s playing himself, yet his act is so intertwined with his life I get the sense that off stage he probably feels pressure to live his life as if he were still on it. Sleepwalk With Me follows a pretty common arc, and although it’s very good, it isn’t necessarily a groundbreaking film, so I guess I’m saying I can’t tell if Birbiglia is imitating life or art.
This movie is just on the edge of mainstream consciousness, as Avengers director and all-around entertainment demi-god Joss Whedon is well aware, or so his viral campaign attests. It’s rare to find a scene here that would reveal the film’s low budget, and it has the kind of wide appeal that will almost surely make it a success. In short, people will be (and already are) talking about this one. The story of Birbiglia (who calls himself Matt Pandamiglio in the film) from no-name wannabe hack to successful circuit comedian is not particularly special, but if anything, it’s a heartfelt and engaging tale of the underdog finally making it, and the barrage of sharp one-liners levitate it: “I didn’t want to get married until I was sure that nothing else in my life could possibly get better.”
The talented Lauren Ambrose fills her role perfectly. She’s the anchor, keeping the film from becoming just another string of Birbiglia’s hilarious anecdotes. As Abby competes against Matt’s career, there’s actually some substance. There’s drama. Though I feel it’s a little easy to pit Abby’s domestic desires against the tumultuous and unpredictable swings of a touring comedian’s lifestyle, at least it’s a conflict with universalities. Go see this with a significant other and tell me it doesn’t resonate. I dare you.
True, the relationship drama receives a fairly broad treatment. Are they having trouble because he doesn’t want to get married, or because he doesn’t want to get married to Abby? There’s not quite a satisfactory answer. But aside from the feeling of conventionality, or simplicity, that Sleepwalk With Me exudes, there’s an awful lot to like about it. Watch for comic in-crowders like Marc Maron, Hannibal Buress, and Kristen Schaal to name a few, and great characters in Alex Karpovsky as a fellow comedian, James Rebhorn as Matt’s overbearing and sarcastic father, and Sondra James as Matt’s batty agent. Oh yea, and Joss Whedon is being facetious, FYI.