“Sleepwalk With Me” is based on writer-director Mike Birbiglia’s one-man show; on those terms, the standup comedian-turned-filmmaker has made a respectable debut. With the help of producer and co-writer Ira Glass (NPR’s “This American Life”), Birbiglia chronicles his struggle to find work as an aspiring comedian while fending off mysterious somnambulistic tendencies. The movie has no distinctive style despite oodles of charm, but Birbiglia’s perspective carries it along.
[Editor’s Note: This review originally ran during the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. “Sleepwalk With Me” opens this Friday in select theaters.]
Addressing the camera with comic asides in the grand tradition of “Annie Hall,” Birbiglia delves into a detailed analysis of his neuroses-riddled life, from the relationship problems he suffers with his longtime girlfriend (Lauren Ambrose) to his dispiritingly lame career as a bartender in the comedy club where he aspires to perform. Unlike many chatty comedians with a tendency to share their personal lives, Birbiglia is the opposite of a narcissist, with a tendency to sound mopey rather than aggressive.
That passivity makes it hard to absorb the comedian’s problems without focusing on his pathetic nature. However, his congeniality ultimately makes him an object of sympathy and thus a more reliable narrator than many comedians-turned-actors. (Consider the faux sincerity of Louis C.K. on the still-hilarious F/X show “Louie,” where individual sketches based on his life always come equipped with the knowledge that you’re watching a performance.)
The narrative is structured around a series would-be crises Birbiglia must overcome: He wonders if he should marry his girlfriend or take a break to sleep with other people. He endlessly tries to justify his low-paying gigs. He struggles for a solution to his increasingly perilous sleepwalking episodes. This storytelling isn’t particularly intriguing, but Birbiglia’s charisma carries them with a personable brand of self-deprecation. “To be a comedian, you have to be a little delusional,” he says.
The film’s cheery soundtrack and flat visual compositions bear the mark of a first-time filmmaker who’s more invested in the characters populating his narrative (particularly himself) than any style to sustain them. That could make “Sleepwalk With Me” unbearable if it weren’t for Birbiglia’s sincere, levelheaded voice and a sense of humor that truly comes to life during his inexplicable sleepwalking episodes. Birbiglia’s vivid dreams include an unexpectedly sensual encounter with tomato sauce and his surreal participation in an outdoor Olympic context.
As a depiction of oddball adventures in the realm of stand-up comedy, “Sleepwalk With Me” calls to mind Judd Apatow’s “Funny People” for its focus on the eccentric, obsessive nature of the wannabe comic’s mind. But no matter how troublesome Birbiglia’s behavior gets, he’s never a burden, which makes “Sleepwalk With Me” into the ideal advertisement for his live performances.
Criticwire grade: B+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Having won the top prize of Sundance’s NEXT section, “Sleepwalk With Me” is poised to garner further acclaim on the festival circuit and will likely land a midsize release. Birbiglia’s profile isn’t large enough to propel the movie to large numbers, but it could do quite well on VOD.