Sleepwalk With Me is a remarkably assured directorial debut for comedian and storyteller Mike Birbiglia, based on a stage monologue about his journey of self-discovery as a performer and the challenge of dealing with a rare sleep disorder. Birbiglia performed this piece to great acclaim off-Broadway, and while he’s done a good job of translating his material into a new medium—with the help of his brother Joe, Seth Barrish, and This American Life’s Ira Glass—I still wish I’d seen the show. There is something special about having a good storyteller paint word pictures that a literal dramatization can’t match.
As if to acknowledge that fact, the comedian opens his movie by talking directly to us in the audience. This simple ploy wins us over right away and establishes Birbiglia’s self-effacing persona. As the story proper begins, we meet his parents (Carol Kane and James Rebhorn) and girlfriend (Lauren Ambrose), and we cover somewhat familiar ground. But when he begins to deal with his nascent career, the film finds its real strength. Birbiglia illustrates, in vivid detail, how an inexperienced stand-up comic learns important lessons playing a variety of dumps and dives “on the road.” He’s terrible, at first, but still manages to get gigs—the first truism of show business at the bottom rung of the ladder. The more he dispenses with jokes and draws on his life experiences, the more audiences respond to him. The only problem is that this success takes a toll on his relationship with Ambrose, while his sleepwalking crises physically drain him. Something is bound to give.
Sleepwalk With Me is modest but consistently likable. I look forward to seeing what Mike Birbiglia will try next, especially if he conceives his next film from scratch