Matt Pandamiglio (Mike Birbiglia) has a problem: he’s rapidly increasing the far side of his 20s, and he still doesn’t really know what he wants out of life. He wants to be a comedian, but he won’t commit to doing comedy. He’s been stuck in a nice, if uneventful, relationship for eight years with Abby (Lauren Ambrose), who’s starting to get restless about where their future is headed. And suddenly he finds himself sleepwalking at night, injuring himself and driving his already restless life into the realm of absurdity. And that’s when he finally, suddenly gets an opportunity to go on the road.
Sleepwalk With Me, based on a one-man show that Birbiglia wrote, is at its core something of a strange creature. It isn’t quite performance comedy, though it certainly features a lot of comedy (including cameos by a number of comedians, including Marc Maron and Kristen Schaal). It’s not really a romcom, though early on it pretends like it is headed in that direction before life, specifically the true life story of Birbiglia, gets in the way. And it’s not really a showbiz story, because it’s far too interested in the asides and headspace of its lead.
What shouldn’t be surprising, then, is that Sleepwalk With Me is billed as being from the producers of This American Life—specifically Ira Glass, who helped write the movie. Birbiglia, a past contributor to the show, creates a narrative that ultimately rests on the simple truth that lives can be explained in interesting ways if you get the right storyteller telling the right story. It’s a refreshingly low-key approach that has made This American Life a radio institution, and it carries over nearly fully intact in the movie, which is far more interested in exploring the realities of this situation than it is unfolding like a typical Hollywood narrative.
Much of the weight of investment, then, falls on Birbiglia himself. He’s a bit of a goof at the best of times, perpetually looking as though he was slapped awake and thrown in front of whoever he’s talking to. I mean that not as a pejorative, but as an explanation of character: long before he starts his actual somnambulatory sojourns, he is only barely lucid through the majority of his life. It’s as frustrating as it is endearingly goofball, because you sense that deep down there’s someone with talent even if he seems to be the last person to know it.
It’s when he finally gets on the road, though, that the movie embraces the strangeness of its situation. Here’s a guy who can barely function in normal life, now suddenly tearing across the country at breakneck speed to make it to awful gigs doing comedy in an array of dive bars and ramshackle clubs. Cut adrift from expectations, his comedy begins to grow into something he’s ashamed to bring home, full of personal anecdotes he’s safe telling strangers but not mature enough to face telling to the people who would know that they are more true than fiction. And, as expected, the life of a road comic makes his condition worse, to the point where he’s forced to confront himself after realizing he’s potentially genuinely in danger.
At the same time he’s suffering this seemingly endless dream, his real life connections are growing more and more strained. His girlfriend wants marriage, and he wants to give it to her, but neither of them are really sure why they want it or if it’s something they can sustain. He wants to pursue comedy, she wants to settle down, and nobody is really comfortable with any of the choices they make. It’s self-aware enough to let the hero be unlikable, knowing that in the end earnest effort in trying to relate something truly human is more important than settling into the frame of a conventional comedy of any type.
In one of the best moments in the movie, Matt/Mike is doing terrible jokes at a club full of disinterested patrons, unable to land any of his old, tired material. Going on a bit of advice he was given, he embraces not just telling jokes, but sharing his fear that ultimately the impending threat of marriage fills him with more dread than anticipation. It gets a laugh, but because it’s true more than because it’s funny; the comedy speaks to the reality of being human, as all great comedy does. And writ large in that personal and utterly true moment is not only the epiphany of this character of what comedy means, but the ultimate purpose of the film itself.
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