Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Run Time: 1 hour, 30 minutes, Not Rated
Starring: Mike Birbiglia, Lauren Ambrose, Carol Kane, James Rebhorn
Directed by Mike Birbiglia & Seth Barrish (feature-film debut for both)
Writers, artists, or otherwise, are always given the great advice: To draw on that from which you know. The best comedians, for example, usually reveal small slices of their lives that are so funny to us simply because they are so universally real. To stretch the point even further, the best authors tend to effect us with realism drawn on personal experience.
The real-life stand-up comedian Mike Birbiglia seems to have taken this great advice, and has used it to craft a deeply personal film called Sleepwalk With Me. Birbiglia stars in the film and also co-wrote and co-directed. He plays Matt Pandamiglio, a version of his real-life self, who in the film is a wanna-be stand-up comic leading a very unfulfilled life.
The film originated as a story on the radio, on NPR's "This American Life." NPR staple Ira Glass is credited as a co-writer as well, and makes a cameo in the film. In fact, there are cameos by several well-known and lesser-known comics peppered throughout Sleepwalk with Me. It adds to the authenticity of the story that so many seemed to want to be a part of it.
As the story goes, Matt Pandamiglia is painfully unfunny and lacks any amount of confidence on stage. He gets to try out the same unfunny jokes from time to time at the comedy club where he works as a bartender and janitor. He is in a relationship with a girl (Lauren Ambrose) whom he has been with for several years, but has never asked to marry. His parents are not supportive and add to the stress and angst that he already feels from being a total failure.
As the stress piles up, Matt develops a sleeping disorder of the severest variety. This disorder - REM sleep behavior disorder - allows him to "act out" his dreams while sleeping. At first this is perhaps humorous, like when he thinks that the clothes hamper is a jackal. Later it becomes less funny and increasingly dangerous, when at one point he throws himself through a window of a second-story building.
If this doesn't sound like your typical comedy, that's because it isn't. There are definitely laughs in the film, but underneath, we are studying the inner-workings of a neurotic mind.
Many have said that Sleepwalk with Me is the best film ever made depicting the life of a stand-up comedian. Not ever having done stand-up, I tend to agree with this assessment.
As Matt fearlessly pursues his waking dreams, his sleeping dreams may ironically lead to his undoing. It's not until he finally takes the advice of a fellow comic - the above advice - that he begins to get a grip on stage. Getting a grip on stage leads him to attempting to gain a firmer grip on his life off-stage.
Some elements of the film seem to be simplified, like being yourself will instantly lead a person to happiness and acceptance (it doesn't). But there is a lot to like about the story being told. Mike Birbiglia is funny and utterly convincing. I guess you could say that it's a role he was born to play.
Beyond the realism of the world Birbiglia creates, we are thankful for his vulnerability. His character has serious problems, but life is not about being perfect. Sometimes you just have to learn how to live with yourself.
So simple a message yet so poignant, Sleepwalk with Me encourages us to follow our dreams, while reminding us to proceed with caution. Left unkempt, some dreams may lead to ruin.
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