SXSW Film Review – Sleepwalk With Me
I will admit I was a bit slow to warm up to Mike Birbiglia. Not that he isn’t entertaining, but usually the roles I had seen him in were where he was playing kind of dopey characters. I had heard his work on This American Life, which I’ve enjoyed, but that alone wasn’t enough to hook me. That has all changed, though, with his directorial debut, Sleepwalk With Me—which he not only directed, but wrote and starred in, as well.
Sleepwalk With Me is a film based Birbiglia’s one-man show of the same title, which was inspired by his own life. The film version follows Matt Pandamiglio (Birbiglia), who is an an aspiring stand-up comedian who is stuck in a stalled relationship with Abby (Lauren Ambrose), and is suddenly struck with severe cases of sleepwalking. As the stress from his life gets worse, so does the extremity of his sleepwalking. The film mirrors Birbiglia’s real life, and despite the loosely changed names and other smaller tweaks, it is pretty accurate.
In concept it sounds a bit strange, I will admit, but the film begins on a bold first step by breaking the fourth wall. The film oscillates back and forth between Pandamilgio talking to the camera about his story and actually watching the story unfold. This could’ve potentially been very off-putting, and it would’ve been especially easy for a first-time director to mess up the balance, but Birbiglia’s performance and direction make it work flawlessly. Because his character is caught in the Peter Pan generation, I think the character and his trouble moving into adulthood will probably resonate with a lot of people. Birbiglia presents his “pseudo” self as a complex and tormented character. His comedy career is floundering, his relationship is stuck in neutral, and he makes decisions that don’t necessarily make him look good. It is that willingness to be open and the honest that makes him ultimately very endearing to the audience. We don’t necessarily agree with everything he does, but we understand him on his journey, and we root for him as he starts to get a little bit of success.
That is really the sleeping juggernaut (no pun intend) of the movie: Mike Birbiglia, the actor. My preconceptions about him coming into the movie were largely based on his limited film career, in films like Cedar Rapids and Going the Distance. Mostly they were quick parts used for an easy joke and then he was gone, never to be seen again. But the thing I hadn’t thought about was that Birbiglia is first a comedian—and comedy is an industry that is entirely focused around timing. Not only has he had years to fine-tune the story of Sleepwalk With Me, but he’s also had years to fine-tune the performance of it.
The film feels much bigger than a traditional indie film, and I think that is because of the excellent crew working on it. Ignoring the named actors working the movie, the film employs smart and creative filmmaking, and this is where Mike Birbiglia the director shines. For instance, there is a beautiful tracking shot in the movie that plays a significant role in the story and isn’t there just for style points. In addition, the judicious use of casting is just gravy, and makes all the characters feel natural in the plot and not there purely for recognition value. Lauren Ambrose gives one of her best performances, and there are a few nice cameos in the mix that add some extra punch.
Despite tackling relatively basic issues (job, relationship, medical problems), the tension builds through the movie. And in a smart and pleasant move, the climax goes in a very different direction than most dramas of similar subject matter. (I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a twist, though, since it feels natural in the context of the movie.) One thing I wish there had been more discussion of is his sleepwalking disorder. While it plays an important role, it remains a bit unclear as to when it begins and what exactly it is. The movie makes it appear as though it appears during the course of events shown, but I don’t know if that is actually the case, or if it was always there and just got worse.
Even though I know how the story plays out from the film, Birbiglia’s performance of it makes me want to go back and check out his one-man play. While I believe he no longer performs it live, there is a CD of the live performance available. It is amazing to experience a film where you feel like you know someone at the end of the movie, and not have it be a documentary. It is amazing to see that Birbiglia is willing to let everyone glimpse into his world, if only for a bit. It not only makes me excited for him as a performer, but I can’t wait to see what the filmmaker/actor does next.
Final Grade: A-