Sleepwalk with Me
Directed by Mike Birbiglia
Happiness is rarely good for comedy. If you really want to make people laugh, don’t be happy. All the greatest stand-ups have been either angry or miserable, and more often than not, both. George Carlin was always angrily complaining about the hypocrisies of society, and so was Lenny Bruce and Bill Hicks. Phyllis Diller’s and Joan Rivers’ jokes are mainly about the misery of marriage and aging from women’s perspective. Incidentally, how much comedy comes from complaining about marriage? Some of the best-remembered and heralded comedy routines have come from comedians’ real personal tragedy, such as Richard Pryor’s recounting of setting himself on fire while freebasing or, as a more recent example, Tig Notaro’s “cancer set”. Stand-up comedian Mike Birbiglia’s autobiographical film Sleepwalk with Me follows in this tradition of mining personal tragedy for comedy, recreating how a stalled romantic relationship and a dangerous sleep disorder helped him find comedic inspiration and success. Birbiglia co-wrote, directed, and stars in the film that dramatizes the story he’s told on stage for several years now and that was heard on This American Life, which led that show’s host Ira Glass to produce the film with Jacob Jaffke. The film unfolds in flashback as the only-slightly fictionalized version of Birbiglia named Matt Pandamiglio drives his car and recounts his story directly to the camera. When the story starts, Matt’s life is in a rut; he’s a bartender in a comedy club with hopes of launching a stand-up career but with no good jokes to make it happen and, after 8 years with his girlfriend Abby (Lauren Ambrose), he still doesn’t know where their relationship is headed, even while his parents (Carol Kane and James Rebhorn) and family pressure him to pop the question. Matt, however, refuses to admit that there’s anything wrong, and the pressure develops into a sleepwalking disorder which, just like the rest of his life, Matt refuses to acknowledge as a real problem until it nearly kills him.
Birbiglia is one of the best storyteller comedians today (as in his comedy is based on him telling longer humorous stories as opposed to a set of jokes on various topics), not because his stories are necessarily funnier than others, but because he’s such a great storyteller. He doesn’t simply convey his story, but he constantly comments on the story itself, his own telling of it, and the audience’s reaction to it. The film opens with him assuring the audience that the story is true, then telling us how people often don’t believe him when he tells them it’s true and the only thing he can think to do is say the same thing louder until they believe him. Later, before telling an unflattering portion of the story, he tells the audience to remember, “You’re on my side.” At another moment, when Matt makes what is obviously an unwise decision, he says to the audience, “I know. I’m in the future too.” These tactics are important tools for oral storytelling. They establish a connection between Matt/Mike and the audience that feels closer and more intimate than most storyteller/listener relationships, as if we’re hearing a story told to us by a friend. That connection quickly creates empathy from the audience, and that empathy is emboldened by the fact that the bulk of the story is incredibly relatable, as nearly any viewer can personally relate to uncertainty about their future in regards to both career and romantic relationships. That underlying relatability gives Birbiglia’s story an almost motivational quality as he comes to realize that his avoidance and denials of the issues in his life and his inability to engage and express his own feelings is killing his potential, and finally coming to terms with those feelings leads him to greater success and happiness, giving the impression that the viewer could achieve the same by coming to terms with their own feelings and needs.
As universal and potentially uplifting as that message may be, though, that doesn’t guarantee an original or interesting movie. Sleepwalk with Me luckily finds novelty in two places: its focus on the trials and travails of life on the road for a stand-up comedian, and, of course, the sleepwalking. The sleepwalking disorder is the more attention-grabbing of the two, as it is something truly strange and rare, and it offers up the most comedic opportunities, starting with Birbiglia’s initial sleepwalking episode, in which he’s convinced that a jackal is in his room, and continuing as Birbiglia’s dreams, dramatically recreated for the audience, become more elaborate and his real-life sleepwalking becomes more dangerous, getting so bad that at one point he actually jumps through a second-story hotel window and only narrowly avoids killing himself in the process (the film’s end credits feature actual photos from the real-life incident). Again, this is a serious and tragic event, but because Birbiglia is so open and honest about it and willing to acknowledge the absurdity of the situation, it translates into big laughs. It’s quite convenient for Birbiglia that he has such a fantastic and unusual sleeping disorder, because not only does it make his story stand out, but it also makes for a perfect metaphor, Matt sleepwalking at night the same way he is ultimately sleepwalking through the rest of his life — of course, it’s also not convenient, because he almost died. And yet, while the sleepwalking is the most sensational element in the film, the insider’s look at the life of an aspiring stand-up comic is just as remarkable. Matt struggles early on from a lack of confidence and lack of material, even after gaining a manager and getting some road gigs, and the film shows a very realistic view of life on the road for a struggling comic, traveling hundreds of miles for money that barely covers travel expenses simply because they want the opportunity to be in front of the audience. After he makes some headway thanks to advice from a more seasoned comic (Marc Maron), the strain of life on the road bearing down on his relationship with his girlfriend only gets worse, a problem for any touring artist separated from their partner for days, weeks, months at a time (why do you think so many celebrity marriages fail?). And yet Matt weathers all the miles, the fatigue, and even the disintegration of his relationship to make a career in comedy, which speaks a great deal of truth about the devotion required to make a stand-up career work, or for that matter, any career in art.
Birbiglia’s skill in storytelling on stage translates with little problem to storytelling on screen, bringing many of the same transitions and asides from the stand-up routine into the script seamlessly. The visuals of Sleepwalk with Me are simple but attractive, with more attention paid to the film’s look and framing than what is commonly seen in most bigger-budget comedies today, which employ visuals that are more slick and lack any feeling. One can definitely see potential for Birbiglia’s continuing career as a comedy director if he chooses to pursue it. It’s harder to say if his acting would translate as well to other starring roles, but regardless he does an excellent job playing himself here. His supporting cast is solid as well, particularly Lauren Ambrose as Abby, who remains attractive and charming even as Matt and the film both keep her at arm’s length. One wishes that we could have spent more time with her character, but the specific point-of-view storytelling gives satisfactory reason for why that doesn’t happen. Sleepwalk with Me is a highly entertaining and hilarious film with real depth of feeling underneath. The only caveat I would give is that the film may potentially be more enjoyable if you’re not already familiar with the story. I had heard the same story multiple times from Birbiglia’s appearances on This American Life and seeing him on TV, where he hits the same story points, uses the same lines, the same inflections, basically everything exaclty the same, except with a live audience laughing along. It’s a credit to the story that even though I was hearing the same story again, I still laughed at the film, but I couldn’t help but long for the interaction and energy created by the crowds watching him. That doesn’t mean if you’ve already heard the story, you shouldn’t see the film. Do see it, because it’s still funny, and it’s still amazing that Birbiglia survived to tell the tale he tells so well.
Four out of five suns