Legend of the New York comedy scene Mike Birbiglia adapts his play “Sleepwalk With Me” to the theaters for a gut-wrenching compromise between angst-induced comedy and sincere angst. Playing Matt Pandamiglio, an aspiring comic in a relationship circling the drain, Birbiglia finds humor in the holes of his life. But as the jokes get better, the holes get bigger and he finds himself in need of serious repair. This is probably an ars poetica for the real-life comic, whose barely costumed person and signature nasally voice, which many will recall from “This American Life Live!,” envelopes this movie with a close-to-home indie feel. But Birbiglia’s welcome narration cannot shield the audience from experiencing the pain and uncertainty in the story line.
Sleepwalk With You
At the Michigan
Co-directed with newcomer Seth Barrish (“2 Days in New York”) and co-produced by Ira Glass (“This American Life Live!”), “Sleepwalk With Me” tells a story with integrity, from the mouth of a man whose integrity is constantly in question. Pandamiglio, the Everyman and protagonist, is a total ass. There is a particular jump-cut away from the narrative to the narrator where Pandamiglio reminds us in jest that we, the audience, are “supposed to be on his side” with respect to what is about to happen. We are not.
There exists a tug-of-war between the invitation to make jokes of problems, and the karmic reproaches of our anti-hero for having done so. When Abby (Lauren Ambrose, “Wanderlust”) wakes to find her boyfriend groggily attacking a clothes hamper under the impression it is a jackal, she and his family urge him to take the matter seriously; he shrugs it off and uses it as joke material. As Matt Pandamiglio and the audience discover together, all comedic taps are symptomatic of sickness, and though we cannot be cured, we must learn to laugh even as we attempt to fix ourselves.
Any film narrated by its protagonist is largely dependent on its protagonist’s personality for texture. Birbiglia’s gruff, honest style is omnipresent, and helps sand the corners of the film. Not a comedy, the film has moments of comedic lucidity through which Birbiglia glints with the same observational brilliance he is famous for. The laughs, however, are far from the focus of this movie; at least 80 percent is pure anxiety. The remaining 20 percent is worth it, but only to the kind of person able to stomach watching someone’s life tank.
“Sleepwalk With Me” is deeply true to life with its handling of the comedy club scene, being a product of Birbiglia (and guest starring comics Wyatt Cenac, Kristen Schaal, David Wain and Marc Maron), but Matt’s relationship with Abby stretches credibility. Abby is too lovely for this movie, too supportive. Her perfection makes it incredible that Matt should feel unable to engage her romantically. The idea that he would want to break up with her seems insane. It’s understandable that Pandamiglio isn’t ready for the kind of relationship she wants, but even so, the movie presents the virtue in the relationship as entirely Abby’s, and one does not simply break up with that kind of sweetheart.
The polar opposite of a feel-good movie, “Sleepwalk With Me” cannot be recommended to anyone who isn’t either a fan of Mike Birbiglia or Woody Allen, because, while presented as a comedy, there are too many points that make the audience squirm with discomfort. Still, if there were ever consolation in restless ennui, Birbiglia manages to put it there.