Yes, everything that follows is true, our narrator assures us from the start after asking everyone to go ahead and turn off their cell phones. The validity of it all has been questioned before, and he simply wants to cut our skepticism off at the pass. However, since this is Mike Birbiglia playing a version of himself (named in the film as “Matt Pandamiglio”), replicating stories of his own life in a film based on his one-man show and identically titled book, “Sleepwalk With Me,” there remains an inevitable degree of distance between seeing Matt go through the travails of becoming a stand-up comedian and a suitable boyfriend, and laughing at Mike’s actual experiences. Don’t worry: it’s a bit less through-the-looking-glass than it reads on paper.
That’s the beauty of stand-up, though, that an audience readily accepts not mere anecdotes but an exceptionally amusing interpretation of them. As such, we roll with Mike playing Matt as he enjoys the company of long-time partner Abby (Lauren Ambrose); begrudgingly accepts the advice of parents Frank (James Rebhorn) and Linda (Carol Kane); and splits his mounting worries between his relationship, a fledgling funnyman career and a burgeoning sleepwalking disorder.
It’s essentially a feature-length investigation of post-collegiate ennui, featuring re-enactments within itself of Matt’s vividly troublesome dreams: winning invented competitions for cleaning the house, enjoying a neck pillow made of pizza, leaping through actual second-floor windows. Familiar comedians populate the hotel bars and college shows with which Matt initially makes do, while the author of actual sleep disorder texts puts in an appearance to narrate his own audiobook in the passenger seat of our mildly delusional protagonist’s car. Such gestures brings to mind Woody Allen’s legendary Marshall McLuhan aside in “Annie Hall,” and Birbiglia’s schlubby schtick certainly evokes that comedian in no small part, complete with fourth-wall-breaking touches of self-deprecation. (Matt reminds us in the midst of potential infidelity: “Remember, you’re supposed to be on my side.”)
Is twenty-something uncertainty especially revelatory material? Not necessarily. But Birbiglia’s droll, clumsy delivery works just as well on screen as it does on stage. Better yet, the film (co-written and co-produced by NPR’s Ira Glass, among others) marks his writing and directorial debut, and the extent to which his stand-up improves and his insecurities worsen as Matt begins effectively confessing his worst relationship fears to total strangers, seems to stem from a very real place of ambivalence and ambition. At the risk of shortchanging the entire, perfectly fine supporting cast, the whole endeavor rests (and well) on Birbiglia’s perpetually shrugging shoulders without reeking of other self-consuming vanity projects.
In between gigs and dreams gone equally awry, “Sleepwalk With Me” quietly goes a long way towards rationalizing how, and why, a seemingly shy guy would be compelled to entertain the anonymous masses even as he struggles with one-on-one connection and commitment. Fans of Birbiglia should be easily entertained, and with a little luck, it will only earn this particular loveable neurotic a few more of those. [B]
This is a reprint of our review from SXSW.