Sleepwalk With Me

Sleepwalk With Me


Reviewed by: Owen Van Spall

Don't go into Sleepwalk with Me expecting a Michel Gondry-style medley of hilarious sleepwalk induced pratfalls. Comedian Mike Birbiglia's film, which he wrote, directed and stars in, certainly does feature some hilarious (and downright wince-inducing) scenes where struggling stand-up comedian Matt (Birbiglia) is jolted awake to find his vivid dream actions have been mirrored in the real world by his alternately jumping off dinner tables or even out of a second floor hotel window. But the film is mostly focused on what happens during Matt's waking hours and his failure to express and confront his subconscious anxiety. His increasingly erratic sleepwalking, it is implied, is merely a symptom of this.

The film emerged out of Birbiglia's one-man award-winning Broadway show of the same name, and as a result has many touches, including a direct to camera address, that give it the feel of an autobiography. The elaborate, emotional and funny stories caught the attention of the producer of acclaimed US public radio series This American Life, Ira Glass. Working together, the two set about transferring Birbiglia's show to the big screen in such a way that it would encapsulate a comedic emotional journey and show what it was like living in the trenches of the world of stand-up comedy when your career is stalled at the gate.

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Though vivid dream sequences offered great cinematic potential, Birbiglia also wanted to put what he felt was a more realistic and unique portrayal of sleepwalking on screen. Birbiglia himself suffers from same condition as his on screen alter ago - REM Sleep Behaviour Disorder - where a person actually interacts dynamically with their dream environment and not the real world, meaning they can actually jump through a second floor hotel window if not restrained or woken up. The results, as the film makes clear, can be physically painful and even life-threatening, but it is emotional pain and the comedy that so often comes with pain and tragedy that is what Matt is really beleaguered by.

That is because Sleepwalk With Me is actually a quite melancholy tale about the necessary pain that can come with self-realisation and understanding, a 'you-cant-go-home again' as opposed to a 'guy-gets-the-girl' story. When we first meet Matt, he is more bartender than stand-up, snatching a five minute open mic or supporting slot here and there in his local bar, but his home life, in complete contrast, seems safe and snug. Despite his overbearing and concerned parents, his long-term cohabiting partner since college, Abby (Lauren Ambrose), is supportive and seemingly content. But with more and more of their friends appearing at Matt's shows with kids in tow, it is getting impossible for him to ignore Abby's hints that maybe now is the time to settle down. Though unnerved by the prospect of starting a family, surely all Matt needs to shake off his self-doubts (and curtail his sleepwalking) is a breakthrough in his neutral-gear standup life.

It turns out to be not so simple. Matt does indeed get his breakthrough through a chance encounter with a standup promoter/manager who offers him a set of small scale gigs, but the journey this sends him off on is anything but conventional Hollywood schmaltz. There is no one 'killer gig' pay off moment waiting for Matt at the end of this rainbow. In some of the film's funnier scenes, which have that particular whiff of being inspired by actual events, we see Matt endure empty school halls as he compares for mime acts, getting pay offs for a night's work as low as $23 due to low audiences, couch surfing with fellow comics to save cash, being tempted by desperate groupies and bar staff, and trying to stretch 10 minutes of gags (all the material he has at the start) into 30 minutes of stage time.

What also makes Sleepwalk With Me's narrative refreshing is that Matt's journey (and it literally is a journey: being a rookie comedian means you take any gig going, whether in the next town or a 600 mile drive away in another state) does not steer him toward what we think must be the obvious destination - a place where he can build happy life with Abby, finally break into his career, and quell those doubts about marriage and settling. Matt's stand-up career and lifestyle, increasingly baffling to Abby given it seems to consist of packaged food, crappy hotels, hecklers and frequent highway breakdowns, isn't just taking him geographically far away. Its changing his understanding about what he really wants. Paralleling and illuminating this self-realisation is Matt's introduction of his own feelings of doubt about his relationship, career path and life choices into his stage material, which he comes to realise is what audiences respond to.

Managing to be funny, insightful and heartfelt at the same time without slipping into melodrama or cheesiness, Sleepwalk With Me also benefits from an extremely relatable and understated performance from Birbiglia. His sleepwalking condition might be unfamiliar to audiences watching, but the emotional challenges he faces and the black comedy that he mines out of them, sure won't be. Given it functions as a road movie, an insider look at the life of a standup, a study of a serious medical condition and a relationship drama all at once, the film could be accused of heading in too many directions and being uneven in tone at times. Ambrose also feels underused. But Birbiglia is such a warm and charismatic presence that he holds it all together.

Reviewed on: 07 May 2013
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A stand-up comedian with a serious sleep disorder reassesses his life.
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Director: Mike Birbiglia, Seth Barrish

Writer: Mike Birbiglia, Ira Glass, Joe Birbiglia, Seth Barrish

Starring: Mike Birbiglia, Lauren Ambrose, Carol Kane, James Rebhorn, Cristin Milioti

Year: 2012

Runtime: 81 minutes

Country: US

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