ArtsATL > Film > Review: In “Sleepwalk With Me,” Mike Birbiglia mines personal problems for comedy gold

Review: In “Sleepwalk With Me,” Mike Birbiglia mines personal problems for comedy gold

Veteran stand-up Mike Birbiglia makes comic hay about personal problems in "Sleepwalk With Me." (Courtesy IFC Films)


Veteran stand-up Mike Birbiglia makes comic hay about personal problems in "Sleepwalk With Me." (Courtesy IFC Films)

Stand-up comedy follows just behind music and pornography as a media form that has flourished on the Internet. Established and aspiring comedians alike can connect to more fans through YouTube clips and Twitter one-liners, while podcasts such as Marc Maron’s “WTF” dig deeply into the early struggles and comedic outlooks of working comics. Sufficiently famous funny people, like Louis C.K., can even make money off the Internet by selling their work online directly to fans.

In “Sleepwalk With Me,” veteran stand-up comic Mike Birbiglia offers a film for an introspective, interconnected age of comedy hungry for origin stories and anecdotes about life on the road. As a stand-up, Birbiglia presents a persona comparable to Ray Romano’s — they’re not just both Italian-American, but they offer highly relatable, self-deprecating perspectives on their offstage lives, peppered with observational jokes about snack foods and the like. Where Romano repackaged his bustling family life into the hugely successful TV sitcom “Everybody Loves Raymond,” Birbiglia moves into more fraught territory with the film’s treatment of his relationships and his sleep disorder.

Sleepwalk With Me” took a circuitous route to the cinema. As a stand-up, Birbiglia crafts strong, expertly structured jokes with punch lines that take the audience by surprise yet seem inevitable in retrospect. As his career progressed, his material became increasingly personal, leading to the funny but painfully honest one-man show with the same title as this movie’s, which ran off-Broadway. He has since released the material in book form and now has dramatized its stories as an independent film, co-written and co-produced by Ira Glass of radio’s “This American Life.” The less you already know the stories Birbiglia shares, the more you’re likely to enjoy the movie.

Birbiglia directs and stars in the film as an aspiring comic named Matt Pandamiglio, but because he insists that the story is true, I’ll just use his real name. Throughout the film, he confides to the camera in the passenger seat as he drives to his latest stand-up gig. He flashes back to an earlier period of his life, working as a bartender and occasionally taking the stage for short comedic sets. His saintly girlfriend, Abby (Lauren Ambrose), supports his dreams for eight years, even though he shows little impetus toward marriage. Early on, he admits, “Looking at other marriages, I never said, ‘I gotta get me some of that!’ ”

He chances to meet a little old lady talent agent who throws gigs his way, such as hosting an ill-attended lip-sync competition on a college campus. His pursuit of work almost resembles a scavenger hunt criss-crossing the Northeast: each unlikely show leads to another, often hundreds of miles away. He faces rows of resolutely bored audiences and flailingly attempts to improve his crowd work, at one point blurting “Nice shirt, loser” at a spectator and then apologizing for it. It’s like an updated version of the sequences of Woody Allen’s rise as a comedian in “Annie Hall.”

After a veteran comedian (Marc Maron) suggests that he include more jokes from his personal life, Birbiglia airs his anxieties and relationship problems onstage, and increasingly connects with his crowds. “Sleepwalk” doesn’t have to spell out that it’s basically a romantic triangle, with Birbiglia’s feelings split between his girlfriend and his audience. His stresses begin taking a toll as a form of somnambulism called “REM behavior disorder,” which causes him to physically act out his dreams. If he’s accepting an Olympic medal in slumberland, for instance, he might be unconsciously climbing the furniture in real life. The film shows his dreams and their painful outcomes, but it’s funnier and more engaging to hear him describe them in his one-man show.

Birbiglia’s voice and point of view provide some of the movie’s greatest strengths. He’ll make a selfish mistake in the past and then cut to himself in the car, where he ruefully acknowledges, “I know. I’m in the future, too.” But the film’s loosely first-person quality also becomes a limitation, since we tend to see Abby and his parents (Carol Kane and James Rebhorn) from his narrow perspective. It seems a waste that Ambrose, as a lovely young earth mother with a ticking biological clock, never gets to command a scene in her own right. When she sings “Side by Side” at a party, the camera pans around to show the other guests. When Abby has a drunken argument with her boyfriend, Birbiglia’s voiceover takes control of the scene. 

Despite “Sleepwalk With Me’s” warts-and-all self-portrait, Birbiglia avoids exploring why marriage vs. career seems to be an either-or prospect, since Abby couldn’t be more accommodating. Clearly, beneath Birbiglia’s soft, huggable surface, he shares the same compulsion for eliciting laughter that drives more overtly intense comedians such as Maron. The film finds humor in his nocturnal misadventures, but suggests that, as much as he loves Abby, it’s only when he’s onstage that he feels truly awake.

Sleepwalk With Me. With Mike Birbiglia, Lauren Ambrose. Directed by Mike Birbiglia. Not rated. 85 minutes. Opening Friday, September 21. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.

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