Sleepwalk with Me is the story of the earlier travails of a now 30-something standup comic. This movie that grows out of the DIY era that gave us Mumblecore is a bit scruffy, but also original, in a good sense honest and mostly true. Matt (Bisbiglia) narrates to the camera in scenes at moments, like the characters in Tony Richardson's movie version of Tom Jones. Matt is involved with a pretty, lively woman called Abby (Lauren Ambrose), but he has three problems. He's unable to commit to marriage. He's struggling to cross the tough barrier from dying on stage to being funny. And he has a sleep disorder -- he walks and endangers himself -- that he keeps putting of having seen to by a specialist. These are situations that Birbiglia knows through and through, and his sense of pacing is subtle and accurate.
The moment when Sleepwalk with Me begins to click is when Matt is talking to an experienced comic in a little club after he's been on. He can only do eleven minutes. That's all he's got. But somebody drops out and he has to do thirty. It's awful. He even resorts to insulting audience members, which he's not good at. But chatting to the pro, he mentions he has a girlfriend but isn't married. "I don't think I'm going to get married until I'm sure that nothing more that's good is going to ever happen to me," he says. The comic laughs, and says, "You ought to use that, it's funny." The next time he's on stage, he uses it, and everybody laughs. And he tells some more jokes about marriage and his girlfriend, and you think: this guy is funny. And up to then, he really wasn't. He was totally lame. Birbiglia accurately delineates the way a would-be comic makes it up out of bombing into being funny. I don't think anybody has quite caught that so well, and this alone makes Sleepwalk worth watching.
In Matt's case, there's obviously determination. He genuinely wants to be a comic. His steely, dismissive dad, Frank (James Rebhorn) mocks him for not making up his mind, for saying he's a comic when he's just a bartender. But when a jaded, doubtful talent agent (Sondra James) finds him a series of little gigs that aren't worth the pay, he takes them. The key isn't just determination, of course: it's his being willing to get honest about things close to him, as close as his inability to commit. He doesn't want to get married! It tells him a while to admit it. He and Abby have been together for years.
It's sort of obvious that Mike Birbiglia is older than the clueless Matt, who is him when he was in his twenties. But this is okay, because this movie naturally slips in and out of its reality, just as Matt physically moves in and out of his dreams, in which he thinks he is drowning in tomato sauce, being awarded a bunch of flowers with a baby inside, or teetering on the edge of a tower, when he's really out sleepwalking, half asleep and half awake, in some danger at times -- not, perhaps, unlike the risk of of going before a hostile audience.
Being a standup comic, which is one of the tougher things to do in front of people, is about facing hostility and danger. If you're doing well, the time zips by. If you're bombing, dying out there, it seems like forever. Comedy of this kind comes out of your truth -- things that other people don't want to look at in their lives. This is probably why comedians can become great actors, because they learn to open up, let down all their barriers, put it all out there, mine their deepest fears. It calls for emotional courage. And it's a triumph when you do it and it succeeds with an audience and they laugh and clap and yell for more. But then next time you start all over. It never gets easy -- going out alone on that stage. It's scary out there. Every audience is different, and the feeling may change, your timing may be off, you may lose it and fall on your face.
This is the story of the man, not the act, so Birbiglia has sense enough not to present an extended gig. We get a glimpse, but not enough for it to be tedious, of how he takes a line and hones it and adds to it till it becomes professional and really funny. He does the tentative and clumsy earlier performances equally well.
Sleepwalk with Me looks ordinary, in its not very elaborate staging. Beginning with the interactions of Matt and Abby and Matt's encounters with his dad and his slightly ditsy mom Linda (Carol Kane), this might seem like a rom-com. But if it's any one thing obviously it's the story of the birth of a comic -- as wall as a man's discovery of who he is and what he can do, the pathway to becoming a mensh in his own eyes.
Like Mumblecore, Sleepwalk with Me pointedly depicts a younger generation of the commitment-averse. But it's by accepting and being open about his inability to commit that Matt becomes a man, and a comic. In the end Mike Birgiglia, who looks so lumpen and ordinary at first, comes to appear somewhat extraordinary.
Sleepwalk with Me began with a TV show that failed in development (a studio head had told him he was "the next Seinfeld," but then was fired), then led to an Off Broadway solo show that got good reviews. Birbiglia turned that show into a book and an album and then this movie. Besides starring he co-directed with Seth Barrish and co-wrote with PBS's Ira Glass. Birbiglia's speciality now is more joke-laden storytelling than standup, for which his affable, cuddly quality makes him somewhat ill suited. But Bribiglia is ambitious and driven, and is working on another screenplay based on his stage show "My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend." Sleepwalk debuted at Sundance in January 2012 and opened theatrically in the US August 24.
©2012 Chris Knipp
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