Tell yourself it’s only a dream
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, August 31, 2012
Mike Birbiglia is a man of many constituencies -- as a club-proven stand-up comedian, he has gained popularity with the Comedy Central crowd over the course of several appearances on that cable channel. He has achieved Spalding Gray-worthy cult status with performances at Manhattan’s spoken-word series “The Moth” and an off-Broadway one-man show. And he’s a favorite of fans of the addictive public radio program “This American Life.”
Anyone who perks up at the sound of those particular dog whistles won’t want to miss “Sleepwalk With Me,” Birbiglia’s screen adaptation of his play of the same name.
With warmth, unsparing self-awareness and that ineffable Everyman appeal sometimes called “relatability,” Birbiglia proves to be as engaging a presence on the screen as he has been all these years onstage and over the radio waves.
“Sleepwalk With Me” opens with a disclaimer of sorts: Birbiglia, who plays the autobiographical protagonist Matt Pandamiglio, turns to the camera and explains, “I’m going to tell you a story and it’s true,” adding, “I always have to tell people that.” What ensues is a series of flashbacks -- punctuated by Birbiglia’s explanatory narration, delivered from behind the wheel of a traveling car -- depicting the filmmaker’s romance with college girlfriend Abby (Lauren Ambrose), a pivotal moment in both their relationship and his nascent comedy career, and the more-than-coincidental appearance of a sleep disorder that escalates to life-threatening seriousness.
Funny stuff, but not really -- a tonal jumble that Birbiglia pulls off with the assurance of a pro. (Birbiglia wrote the script with producer Ira Glass, co-director Seth Barrish and his brother, Joe Birbiglia.) In a film that combines vignette-like set pieces, fourth-wall-breaking riffs and often bizarre dream sequences, Birbiglia creates a world that’s at once wildly imaginative and instantly recognizable, whether it’s the classes Abby teaches as a vocal coach or the pizza-fueled, road-weary life of a stand-up comic on the rise.
Those club scenes, incidentally, pop even more piquantly to life thanks to the presence of such Birbiglia colleagues as Kristen Schaal, David Wain and Marc Maron; for her part, Ambrose is utterly believable as a sweet, supernaturally patient bohemian girlfriend whose mild disdain for marriage, kids and nuclear conventionality is in the process of giving way to desire. (I, for one, wanted more scenes of Ambrose singing with Loudon Wainwright III, who plays her dad way too briefly in the film.)
No matter how persuasively detailed or textured the environment that Birbiglia constructs in “Sleepwalk With Me,” the enterprise lives or dies by his own persona. Thankfully, the very combination of aw-shucks modesty and acute observational skills that make him such a gifted raconteur serve him in similar stead in an even less forgiving format.
Like Gray before him, Birbiglia contends with the most vexing contradictions of adult life: commitment and compromise, happiness and ambition, terror and pleasure (to paraphrase Gray himself). As occasionally amusing and deeply symbolic as the title sequences are, what makes “Sleepwalk With Me” transcend mere navel-gazing is the honesty with which the filmmaker confronts his own personal and professional foibles.
As a dramatized version of Birbiglia’s experience, featuring his own fictional avatar, “Sleepwalk With Me” may have an ambiguous relationship to real life. But fewer films so vividly illustrate the costs and compensations of getting to the truth.
Contains nothing objectionable.