11 September 2012

Sleepwalk with Me

Mike Birbiglia is shown in a scene from "Sleepwalk with Me."

Sometimes, a story is so good—so darn funny, so full of real, relatable, human emotion—and the storyteller so engaging that it not only works but flourishes in any medium.

Take comedian Mike Birbiglia's "Sleepwalk with Me." It's been a one-man, Off Broadway show; he's performed portions of it on the radio program "This American Life," hosted by Ira Glass; it is the title story of Birbiglia's book, released in 2010; and a live performance is available on CD.

The culmination of it all is "Sleepwalk with Me" the feature film, directed by Birbiglia, with co-director Seth Barrish; written by Birbiglia, his brother Joe, Glass and Barrish; and starring Birbiglia as an only slightly fictional version of himself, Matt Pandamiglio.

OK, so we all haven't jumped through a closed, second-story window, or found ourselves threatened by a jackal in our bedroom in the middle of the night, as Birbiglia has done in his life and Matt does in the movie. But who hasn't felt the anxiety that can come from a relationship, pressure from family and friends, and struggles in your chosen career path?

These three issues come to a head at an engagement party for Matt's sister, Janet (Cristin Milioti). After a day of fielding questions about his own future betrothal, Matt, with little confidence, says to Abby (a radiant Lauren Ambrose), his girlfriend of eight years, "You don't want to get married, right?"

Abby: "Are you asking?"

Matt: "No, I ..."

Abby: "Then no, I guess."

The sleepwalking begins that night.

Professionally, things start to look up. Matt goes from tending bar at a little nightspot that sometimes has live comedy to touring as a standup comedian, though it isn't until he stops telling jokes about Cookie Monster and starts developing more personal material—mostly about Abby and his parents—that he finds his voice onstage. At the same time, he finds himself inexorably sliding toward a wedding he knows will never happen.

The sleepwalking worsens.

As an actor, Birbiglia infuses Matt with an easygoing, endearing air as he narrates and breaks the fourth wall, telling the story directly to the camera. Matt makes some regrettable decisions, but before one of his worst, he reminds us, "You're on my side."

"I know," he says later, anticipating and understanding the viewer's reaction. "I'm in the future, also."

Birbiglia's screen persona has drawn comparisons to Woody Allen, though his timid nature comes from a different place. While Allen plumbs the depths of insecurity to no end, Birbiglia's Matt aims to please, seemingly everyone all the time—so much so that he shies away from any form of confrontation, even when doing so causes more anxiety and leads to more and more dangerous consequences during his nocturnal activities.

The filmmaking brings the story in at a tight 81 minutes, and via creative editing involving flashbacks and surreal dream sequences, the pace never feels hurried. The movie unfolds with a natural quality, Birbiglia applying the same casual tone he employs in front of the camera to his work behind it.

With his personal, "painfully true" (to borrow a phrase from his book) stories, Birbiglia has been a unique voice on the standup comedy circuit for several years now. "Sleepwalk with Me" indicates he could make an even bigger impact at the movies.

Greg’s Grade: A

(Not rated. 81 minutes.)

"Sleepwalk with Me" is showing in limited release. Visit its official website for locations. It also is available to watch at home on demand through IFC Films.

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