‘Sleepwalk With Me’: Giggling in his footsteps

August 22, 2012

Mike Birbiglia seems like an easy-going guy, someone who probably has a little trouble with confrontation or sticking up for himself.

At least that’s how he comes off in “Sleepwalk With Me,” the film version of his hit one-man show that played off-Broadway for almost a year, opening in limited release Friday (8/24/12). In this version, his character has been renamed Matt Pandamiglio – but, as he says at the film’s start, this is a true story.

Essentially, it’s the tale of Birbiglia’s attempt to launch himself as a stand-up comedian, even as he was trying to figure out his relationship with his long-term girlfriend. Family and girlfriend pressure lead him to propose, though his heart’s obviously not in it.

That’s because he has yet to really launch his career – such as it is. It’s the subject of endless nagging from his father (James Rebhorn), a know-it-all who condescendingly offers Matt money while lecturing him about his lack of direction in life. That’s because Matt is still tending bar at the comedy club where he occasionally gets up and does five minutes of comedy.

But just as Matt proposes to girlfriend Abby (Lauren Ambrose), he gets a comedy break. The aging agent he’s pitched himself to calls him to fill in for a last-minute cancellation at a college in upstate New York. Granted, he’s only got five – maybe, 10 – minutes of material, but he can fake it, he figures.

Though he bombs, he’s on a roll – one fill-in gig leading to another, until he’s driving all over the northeast, doing whatever venue he’s sent to, from small clubs to big auditoriums. Through trial and error – and the advice of fellow comics, who rag on him mercilessly – he begins to develop a style and an act.

But the combination of stress, late hours, late-night eating and his own mental fatigue take their toll. Though he’s always been a bit of a somnambulist, he begins sleep-walking in earnest, physically acting out dreams in ways that are frightening to behold – including diving through a second-story hotel window while in the midst of a save-the-world dream.

This isn’t, however, a movie about the hazards of walking in your sleep or ways to overcome a potentially dangerous sleep-related syndrome. As you may have guessed, sleepwalking is a metaphor for the way Matt is navigating his life, unconsciously wandering where he’s expected or told, instead of following his own internal compass.

Birbiglia cowrote this adaptation with Ira Glass of “This American Life,” and codirected the film with Seth Barrish, who directed the one-man show. It’s less about the film-making than the story-telling and the performances. Still, Birbiglia and Barrish find ways to incorporate the dream sequences to make them surprising, real and then surreal. They also figure out how to tell a linear story in a nonlinear fashion, capturing the digressive nature of Birbiglia’s one-man show.

Birbiglia has a casual, low-key delivery that has sneaky, laidback timing; it tends to disguise and enhance the more absurd and outrageous jokes, which he springs on you without telegraphing his intent. Ambrose is always good, an actress who needs someone to write a movie for her, who enhances every project in which she appears.

In general, it’s an amiable, sometimes surprising movie about chasing your dream while you’re wide awake. Birbiglia has developed a following, having made the transition from simple stand-up to more nuanced one-man shows. “Sleepwalk With Me” should expand that audience significantly.

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