Editor’s note: Festival favorite Sleepwalk With Me hits limited release this week, so what follows is a re-run of our Sundance review of the film, originally posted on January 27, 2012. Kate loved the film so much that she saw it again just two months later at SXSW.
From its very first moments, Mike Birbiglia‘s Sleepwalk With Me establishes a very specific relationship with its audience - Birbiglia, playing a version of himself, turns to the camera and reassures us that what we’re about to hear is indeed true, and then he makes us laugh. Birbiglia is a stand-up comedian, writer, and actor, and Sleepwalk With Me is his directorial debut, which is loosely based on his own life. A mix of painful personal stories about a failing relationship, try-and-fail outings at his primary career, and the unraveling of his life by way of a serious medical condition (yup, sleepwalking), the film is (genuinely) both hilarious and heartfelt.
Birbiglia directed, co-wrote, and stars in the film. Which is based on his one-man show of the same name and his 2010 comedic memoir, “Sleepwalk With Me and Other Painfully True Stories.” Which probably all sounds incredibly self-indulgent, but it’s not, because Birbiglia is more than willing to make himself look like a loser and an asshole and untalented wanker (even though he’s none of those things). At one point, during one of his conversations with the audience and before the recounting of a particularly painful and embarrassing tale, Birbiglia reminds us that we’re on his side. It’s a reminder that serves him as much as it does us.
The film focuses primarily on Birbiglia’s surrogate character, Matt, and his relationship with his long-term girlfriend Abby (a charming Lauren Ambrose). Matt and Abby, together since college, have reached an impasse, the kind where marriage seems like the next logical step, though neither one of them seems especially endeared to the idea. A struggling stand-up comedian, Matt’s been pushing the same jokes for years (and they’re not getting him very far), but when he embarks on a slapdash tour across the Eastern half of the United States, Matt finds his creative juices flowing and he begins to piece together a new routine, complete with plenty of jokes about his relationship situation.
While his career takes off, his relationship crumbles and his sleepwalking increases in both danger and frequency (complete with a number of very amusing dream sequences that come from Matt’s perspective), and Birbiglia’s portrayal of his surrogate self straddles the line between the amusing and the honest. We’re still on his side, even if that means recognizing the darker shades of Birbiglia’s character and desires (just as we might recognize them in ourselves).
Birbiglia wrote the film along with his brother Joe Birbiglia (also a stand-up comedian), This American Life‘s Ira Glass, and actor Seth Barrish. Despite having four credited screenwriters who crafted the script from at least three different original sources, the film feels remarkably cohesive and with a consistent worldview. In no way does Sleepwalk With Me feel cobbled together, and the whole enterprise zips right along with zing and bite, sprinkling in emotional valleys with humorous peaks.
Sleepwalk With Me was one of the unexpected delights of the Sundance Film Festival – part relationship drama, part hardcore comedy, part workplace dramedy, the film is a thoroughly enjoyable and engaging production that should appeal to a surprisingly large audience, even those not familiar with Birbiglia’s past work.
The Upside: Birbiglia has done something very difficult with Sleepwalk With Me – he’s adapted his own work for the screen in a way that is engaging, hilarious, and accessible to people with even the most cursory knowledge of the comedian.
The Downside: If you’re not a fan of Birbiglia, I guess you might not like Sleepwalk With Me? But probably not? Because it’s incredibly hilarious and damn well heartfelt?
On the Side: Buy the book!