- Rated R
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All photos © IFC Films
Reviewed by Ezra Stead
any stand-up comedians adopt an intentionally acerbic and antagonistic persona, essentially making themselves into the villains of their own performances and challenging their audiences to dislike them. This approach worked well for the late greats Sam Kinison and George Carlin (especially in his later years), and Daniel Tosh is also a good modern example. On the other hand, comedians like Jerry Seinfeld take the opposite route to laughs, using their naturally likable everyman personae to win audiences over. Mike Birbiglia is one of the latter type of comics, and “Sleepwalk with Me,” his debut feature film as a director, reflects this.
Based on his one-man show and book of the same name, “Sleepwalk with Me” opens with some of the best self-referential narration I've ever seen in a film. Matt Pandamiglio (Birbiglia), an extremely thinly disguised version of the film's writer, director and star, addresses the audience directly, admonishing us to turn off our phones. He tells a story of a guy sitting near him at a movie recently who answered his phone in the middle of the movie with the phrase, “Who dis?” As Matt puts it, this means that not only was he willing to talk on the phone during a movie, he was willing to talk to anybody. This is the first of many great jokes peppered throughout the film's voice-over narration, but its visual jokes are also top-notch, especially in the film's many dream sequences.
In the obviously autobiographical story of the film, Matt is an aspiring stand-up who also works as a bartender at a comedy club, doing a few minutes here and there in between more established comics. As he struggles to develop his comedy career, he finds himself in a difficult position with his girlfriend of the past eight years, Abby (Lauren Ambrose), after they attend his sister’s wedding and he begins to feel pressure from Abby and their various mutual friends to propose to her. Despite the fact that he loves Abby, the idea of marriage has never really occurred to Matt, and he deals with it by hitting the road in order to further his stand-up career.
Further complicating things is the frequent bouts of sleepwalking Matt begins to experience, which get more extreme and potentially dangerous for him as the film progresses. It’s when Matt begins – on the advice of fellow comedian Marc Mulheren (a barely disguised Marc Maron) – to incorporate honest, therapeutic material about his relationship crisis into his act that he begins to really hit his stride as a comic. This leads him to further avoid dealing with both the conflict with Abby and his sleepwalking problem, to the point that both problems begin to spiral out of his control. The irony is that it’s mainly through his stand-up act that Matt is able to figure out his feelings and deal with his life, and “Sleepwalk with Me” juggles the relationship drama, the rise to success and the sleepwalking narrative perfectly, with humor and compassion.
The strength of this film is mainly in the writing, combining the specificity of Matt's experience with the universality of the film's themes of uncertainty about life and love, which Matt brilliantly describes as “like pizza-flavored ice cream. Your brain can't handle so much joy.” The performances are also excellent, with a small army of Birbiglia's comedy friends popping up throughout and great character actors like Carol Kane and James Rebhorn as his mother and father. However, for a low-budget indie comedy, “Sleepwalk with Me” also proves to be quite visually interesting in its numerous dream sequences, which nicely replicate the actual muddled logic of the dream state and the distorted way in which it reflects waking life experiences. It is a relatable and very likable journey through the consciousness (and subconsciousness) of one of the great everyman comedians.
Single-Disc Blu-ray Review:
IFC could have easily thrown together a few token extras and called it a day, so it's nice to see such a robust collection of bonus material on the Blu-ray release. In addition to an insightful audio commentary with Mike Birbiglia and producer Ira Glass, there's also a short but sweet making-of featurette, a Q&A with Birbiglia and Glass moderated by Joss Whedon, a couple of outtakes, and a series of behind the scenes mini-featurettes.