Mike Birbiglia and Seth Barrish
Review by Victoria Large
Posted on 01 May 2012
Source 35mm print
Categories The 2012 Independent Film Festival Boston
There’s certainly potential for Sleepwalk with Me, co-writer and co-director Mike Birbiglia’s fictionalized adaptation of his autobiographical one-man show of the same title, to be a bit too cute. Birbiglia stars in the film as (cough) Matt Pandamiglio, an aspiring stand-up comic who mostly tends bar and is still telling the same jokes he did in college. Matt is also at a crossroads in his relationship with his girlfriend Abby, whom he’s reluctant to marry. Moviegoers weary of relationship movies and immature male protagonists might groan at the premise, and I should tell you right now that the film opens with a heavy dose of pensive voiceover narration, followed shortly thereafter by a scene of two adults jumping on a bed. But cynics will be rewarded if they hang on, because as Sleepwalk with Me unfolds, it becomes increasingly clear that it is composed of authentically funny, moving, and original stuff.
The film, which won an audience award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and served as IFFB’s opening night pick, succeeds in getting some particularly aching details right. For example, Matt’s ambivalence toward Abby comes into sharp relief in the tiny moment when he hesitates to invite her into a family picture at his sister’s wedding, and the queasy uncertainty that comes with being underprepared for a stand-up gig hits home when the camera trains itself on Matt’s unimpressed audience. There’s also a hilarious, pitch-perfect montage of Matt enjoying the liberation of life on the road set to the Backstreet Boys’ “I Want it That Way” (don’t ask).
Of course, the most unique aspect of the film’s central conceit is that Matt is a sleepwalker, and a dangerous one. Matt has a disorder that causes him to act out his dreams while asleep, meaning he will wake up, say, showering, because he had a dream of doing the same. Birbiglia and his co-director Seth Barrish take full advantage of the opportunity to include some amusingly outrageous dream sequences (which often sneak up on the audience), and while I won’t spoil them all here, I particularly liked the bit where Matt begins dreaming while listening to a sleep expert on tape. When the sleep expert appears in the flesh in Matt’s dream, he speaks with the slightly warped tones of a worn cassette.
Matt’s sleepwalking adds both humor and urgency to the proceedings, and while it could have become overworked as a metaphor in this context – yes, cooling relationships and unsatisfying jobs can be a form of sleepwalking – it doesn’t. This is perhaps because Birbiglia is a sleepwalker himself, and many of the film’s major events (including a genuinely frightening sleepwalking-related accident at the film’s climax) are based in reality.
The performances are fine throughout, and I appreciated Lauren Ambrose’s sympathetic portrayal of Abby. (It’s nice to watch a film where the protagonist’s partner doesn’t need to become a villain in order to convince us that a relationship has run its course.) Birbiglia has ample opportunity to show off his well-honed comic timing, and it’s also a pleasure to see Carol Kane, who is very funny as Matt’s sweet but slightly scattered mother.
Sleepwalk with Me packs in a great deal of humor into its brisk running time, and it manages to have emotional backbone without seeming ponderous. It also has real visual kick, particularly in the dream sequences. It marks an assured debut for Birbiglia and Barrish as directors, and given the opportunity, it should win over many of its cynics.
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