Comic Mike Birbiglia has adapted his 2008 one-man show into a riveting, hilarious and clearly somewhat autobiographical venture that, at 81 minutes long, doesn’t outstay its welcome for even a second.
Sleepwalk with Me focuses on long-time couple Matt (Birbiglia) and Abby (Lauren Ambrose), who despite being together for almost a decade, still haven’t tied the knot. Matt is a comedian who works as a bartender to make ends meet, while struggling to light up comedy lounges with barely 10 minutes of sub-standard material. Abby, meanwhile, knows what she wants – to get married, and then have a baby – but doesn’t want to have to beg Matt for it.
The irony is that as Matt fesses up to the difficulties facing his relationship, his comic routine improves, as he begins to incorporate anecdotes about himself and Abby into his shtick. The opposition is clear; Matt’s career begins to take off as his personal life slowly crumbles, yet leaving the marriage angle unchecked has a curious side-effect – Matt develops a sleep disorder that cause him to dangerously act out his dreams in reality. Matt’s disapproving father (James Rebhorn) and marriage-keen mother (Carol Kane) only compound his unspoken anxiety, which rears its head in a serious and life-threatening way in the middle of the night.
Watching the film, it’s easy to imagine that Matt’s struggle to rise as a comic is born out of Birbiglia’s own trials and tribulations starting out; for one thing, the sleep disorder sub-plot is not dissimilar to a condition the comic actor actually has (one which once caused him to run out of a second-story window of a motel while on tour, similar to a scene which occurs in the film).
Drawing from real life certain helps Sleepwalk with Me achieve emotional resonance, but it’s the infusion of quasi-absurdist comedy – namely surreal pieces-to-camera as Matt tries to edify and acquit himself to us – that elevates this quirky indie to the next level.
Aiding the thoroughly engrossing drama is the sheer likability of the cast; Birbiglia, who will be largely unknown to most audiences, is a revelatory, self-deprecatory comic voice for our age. Bravely, the comic occasionally broaches some of Matt’s less-than-savoury behaviours, fostering a thorny moral ambiguity that keeps things from feeling too safe or predictable.
As his trusty girlfriend, Ambrose – best known to audiences for her sublime work as Claire Fisher on Six Feet Under – gets one of her best post-show roles here as an affable, strong woman who knows what she wants and despite her disagreements with Matt, demonstrates an admirable loyalty to him even when things look dire.
One of the more honest recent explorations of human relationships, the film carefully walks a fine tonal line, noting the self-denying nature of good people, and how this ultimately can become a burden for progress and self-improvement.
Refreshingly eschewing genre conventions, Sleepwalk with Me arrives at a leaping-off point that feels more honest and real than we as audiences are typically used to. That being said, Birbiglia also ably avoids doom and gloom, opting for a philosophical resolve that will connect easily with like-minded viewers.
A riotous breakthrough for Mike Birbiglia, whose humanist comedy says a lot about modern relationships that many of us won’t be prepared to admit.
Sleepwalk with Me premiered at Sundance London last week.
This article was first posted on May 1, 2013