Remember the movie you thought Judd Apatow wanted to make when he directed "Funny People"? Picture if he had gotten the tone right, swapped out Seth Rogen's whining with some Woody Allen-style meditations on modern romance, and used Mates of State as a key music cue instead of Ringo Starr. The result might look something like "Sleepwalk With Me," comedian Mike Birbiglia's very funny -- and very honest -- new film, which screened to a packed house at the South By Southwest Film Festival on Tuesday night. That stuff you read after "Sleepwalk With Me" debuted at Sundance about how it's one of those festival favorites not to be missed? It's all true.
(Thankfully, IFC picked up "Sleepwalk With Me" for theatrical distribution, so you'll actually have a chance to see it sometime soon.)
Based on Birbiglia's one-man off-Broadway show of the same name (which has spawned an award-winning book and comedy album), "Sleepwalk With Me" follows Matt Pandamiglio (Birbiglia), a struggling Brooklyn-based comic in the throes of twin life-crisises: after eight years together, his girlfriend Abby (Lauren Ambrose) wants to get married, and -- in a perhaps-related twist -- he's developed an REM behavior disorder that makes him prone to very active bouts of sleepwalking. Naturally, neither issue fits into Matt's schedule: he jokes that he doesn't want to marry Abby until he's sure "nothing else good could happen in [his] life," and he won't go to the doctor for his sleepwalking because his growing stand-up career has him traveling from Vermont to Ohio for low-paying gigs on the regular.
If Matt sounds like a selfish jerk, well, he's not: Birbiglia has an everyman charm that belies any of Matt's more inconsiderate transgressions, and the film has Mike-as-Matt narrating things from the "present," a fourth-wall breaking trick that Allen used so effectively in "Annie Hall." As Matt says to the audience after his past-self makes one particularly bad decision, "I know. I'm in the future, too."
After the screening of "Sleepwalk With Me," Birbiglia talked about the editing tricks of his film -- done by award-winning editor Geoffrey Richman ("The Cove," "Sicko") -- most of which were performed out of necessity.
"We just didn't have the time," Birbiglia said about the brisk independent shoot. "Sometimes, on really key scenes, we'd get, like, two takes, and we'd have to move on or we were gonna get kicked out of the location. When we were in the edit room, Geoff, to his credit, found creative solutions to scenes that I, at certain points, was like, 'I don't know if this scene is gonna make it out alive!'"
Not that you could tell there was any editing-room turmoil from what's onscreen. As a director and writer, Birbiglia has the polish of someone who has been making indie dramedies for years; there's a genuine professionalism and ambition to "Sleepwalk With Me" that you wouldn't expect from someone in their directorial debut. Birbiglia follows Matt into a La Quinta Inn, for instance, and doesn't cut as he goes from the lobby to his room on another floor. It's a camera trick you'd be more likely to find in the next Martin Scorsese movie, not one that uses Park Slope's Union Hall as a major location. (Birbiglia did mention "Goodfellas" as an influence after the screening, which makes sense, if you think of the La Quinta tracking shot as his Copacabana scene.)
If "Sleepwalk With Me" has a chance of breaking out of whatever indie-ghetto great festival films go into after screening around the country, it's because of a pretty impressive cast. In addition to Birbiglia and Ambrose, the film features appearances from Marc Maron, Carol Kane, David Wain, Kristen Schaal and "This American Life" host Ira Glass, who co-wrote the "Sleepwalk With Me" script with Birbiglia, Mike's brother, Joe, and Seth Barrish. (Glass featured Mike's real story of REM behavior disorder on an episode of "TAL.")
"What was it like working with Ira Glass? Awful," Birbiglia joked after the screening. "No, Ira is extraordinary. He's really a story Jedi, he kind of thinks in story and he's very particular about what he thinks is working and what he thinks is not working. That's really good person to have on your team."
Much like his character in "Sleepwalk With Me," Birbiglia has an easy-going demeanor, and is wildly funny just by being himself. You root for him to make it both as a character onscreen and as a filmmaker behind the scenes. He achieves both in "Sleepwalk With Me" without every straying from what makes you like him in the first place.
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