Sundance darling Sleepwalk with Me is written and co-directed by comedian Mike Birbiglia and brought to the screen by largely the same crew who put together his one man off-Broadway show, and This American Life narrative based not-at-all-loosely on his well-chronicled REM Behavior Disorder — he acts out his dreams in his sleep, which is about as dangerous as it sounds. Since he’s made the late-night rounds for years with the jumping-out-a-hotel-window routine, there aren’t many spoilers to worry about divulging.
As a stand-up comic, his picaro “Matt’s” early career bartending and paying dues at places like the Joke Barn and lupus walk-a-thons afford well-trod territory: the pay is lousy ($27 to $150 bucks a gig for a thousand miles of work); he struggles to do more than 11 minutes; less-than-attractive girls on the road insist on having sex with him (even after he puts up a valiant “I have a girlfriend” effort); and his jokes about the Cookie Monster and the A-Team are not especially well-received.
As delightful as NPR might be on the ride home from work, it doesn’t necessarily make for the most compelling drama. One word for this brand of Ray Romano-meets-Ira-Glass brand of storytelling might be “gentle,” and another might be “quiet,” or at times “dull.”
Once he starts working his long-suffering (eight years of long) girlfriend into The Act, along with his life-threatening sleep disorder, his comedy improves, more or less mimicking the arc of Birbiglia’s real life.
Movies about Comedy almost always struggle with how Inside Baseball they should be (The Aristocrats). This one is populated by scenes of bombing onstage, alongside cameos and bit parts that include half of The Daily Show lineup and comedian’s comedian Marc Maron (who pops up to guide him: say, maybe he should stop talking about the Cookie Monster and start talking about his failure to launch?). Coming-of-age movies about grown men who ought to already be adults aren’t new (see also, The Hangover, I thru VI). Neuroses haven’t been fresh since Woody Allen was first told “that’s not your bizness.” And funny people have been known for their faulty brain chemistry — their dark sides and demons –since long before Richard Pryor set himself on fire. But this isn’t The King of Comedy, or even Spike Lee’s Kings of Comedy. At its heart, this is just a pretty conventional romantic comedy, with a side order of jumping out of windows.
Matt’s Dad (played loud, but pitch perfect by sturdy character actor James Rebhorn) has a legitimate point in that he just wants him to “find a goddamn plan and stick with it.” His mother (Carol Kane, putting on her usual airily wacky zeal) is a peacemaker who explains to Son about Dad, “he’s kidding, but…he’s not funny like you.”
Abby (Lauren Ambrose) has a solidly vague yet fulfilling career (something to do with vocal therapy that she gets to act out onscreen in an artfully contrived “colorful” manner). We are obviously meant to find her Interesting, but her character is drawn entirely in shortcuts: she tapes paint swatches to the wall; she writes his sleep doctor appointment on his hand; Loudon Wainwright III plays a singing uncle who hugs her in an engagement montage. (It’s all so Rachel Getting Married, except she isn’t.)
In “Matt’s” stubborn refusal to commit, much less marry her, he sees a way to avoid acknowledging the universal truth suggested by his friends and family, “that the best thing about my life is my girlfriend.” The narrative takes great pains to point out that he knows this, while simultaneously suggesting that he is a really good guy for admitting to the struggle, and graciously allowing her to be the hero. “Matt” offers himself many apparently-self-deprecating-yet-actually-self-congratulatory meta pats on the back along the way. His voiceover (and offside speeches to the camera) go to great lengths to tell viewers just how great he knows Abby really is — look, everybody! he’s built a movie around it! — and what lifelong friends they’ve become. When he does bad things, he prefaces it on camera with aw-shucks abashed comments like, “remember, you’re on my side,” the same way a puppy shows you the shoe he’s chewed, but then bats his eyelashes in a way that urges you to see his charming side of it.
It’s autobiography, but not quite. Birbiglia plays Matt in some of the same ways Larry David plays a guy who looks a lot like Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm, but it isn’t as a adept. David is never afraid to do or say or be the unpopular.
In universally praising Sleepwalk With Me, most critics have repeatedly and almost obsessively referred to Birbiglia’s likeability. His halting delivery and (often) engaging storytelling style of monologue has more in common with the late Spalding Gray or a kinder Louis CK than the typical 90s era Seinfelds. But it’s impossible to lose sight of just how strongly the movie works to make him likeable.
The humor here is observational, but affably slight, and often a little slow — a Catholic Woody Allen (and not the first one of those) for audiences who probably wouldn’t sit still these days for A Swimming to Cambodia. A sequel, of sorts, is already on the way, based on Birbiglia’s current one man show (on tour now), My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend (which will play at The Kentucky Center in Louisville).