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Carol Hartsell

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Mike Birbiglia's Sleepwalk With Me Reveals the Restless Heart of Comedy

Posted: 03/17/2012 2:36 pm

"Remember, you're supposed to be on my side."

If you spend the greater part of your life surrounded by comedians -- either because you are one, you're married to one, or your career involves being firmly entrenched in that community (the last two apply to me) -- it's difficult to watch Mike Birbiglia's sublimely affecting Sleepwalk With Me without seeing aspects of your own life in it. But since the story itself is only a slightly heightened version of Birbiglia's real life, the familiarity it inspires is probably appropriate.

You could shorthand the story like this: a struggling comedian's anxieties about life and commitment become manifest in a life-threatening sleep disorder.

Birbiglia, who wrote and directed the film based on his previous off-Broadway play and book of the same name, employs a Woody Allen-esque narrative style, speaking directly to the audience from his car throughout the film. The familiarity of the protagonist breaking the fourth wall doesn't diminish its effectiveness, however. Birbiglia's self-conscious candor is the heart of the story, so it makes sense for him to reveal the details of his psychological and artistic journey while taking a literal one (driving through toll booths, stopping at gas stations, arriving at his next gig).

While the sleep disorder plaguing Birbiglia's Matt Pandamiglio is the centerpiece of the film, it's the heartbreaking look at a relationship involving two nice people who love each other but have run their course as couple that gives the film its emotional heft. Given that "Sleepwalk With Me" is an adaptation of a one-man show, the supporting characters could have easily been painted too broadly. But the combination of Birbiglia's insightful script and the nuanced performances brings each person into full focus.

Lauren Ambrose's Abby is the embodiment of a woman resisting the role of long-suffering girlfriend/would-be wife. Her love and support of Matt is genuine, even as we see her actively deny their unavoidable fate as a couple. Where she could have been portrayed as a pining, lonely left-behind, sitting at home waiting for her would-be fiance to return, instead she is a vibrant, smart, engaging personality who continues her life while part of it crumbles.

The movie also doesn't shy away from acknowledging that, oftentimes, finding your voice as an artist means allowing everything else to fade into the background: relationships, work, your own health. The fact that Matt's focus on becoming a working comedian is pure doesn't make his actions okay, it simply makes them forgivable.

The relationship destroyed by the demands of an artist's career is, once again, familiar territory. But Birbiglia endeavors in Sleepwalk With Me to explain why the cliche exists, and it has very little to do with drug use and/or casual road sex (though there is an incident involving the latter which Birbiglia introduces by saying the line quoted above). Matt's story is about not only learning how to become the comedian he always wanted to be, but learning what he's willing to give up to get it. It also captures the rush of stand-up that compels comedians to spend months at a time on the road. When Matt bombs in front of a crowd that hates him, we feel every ounce of that humiliation. And when he first hits upon a series of jokes that work, our pulse quickens with his.

Inherent in Matt's particular journey is the idea that we all make choices, and some of those choices can appear indefensible from the outside. How we reckon what we want with how what we want affects the people we care about is what defines us.

So, yes, we are on Matt's side. We want him to succeed, we want him to get help with his sleep disorder, we want him find happiness. But we're also on Abby's side; and more importantly, we know that Matt is on her side, too. He just doesn't know how to be.

Lest this review make it sound like the movie isn't laugh-out-loud funny, let me just assure you at this point that it is. The script is peppered with Birbiglia's tried and true standup material throughout, and Carol Kane and James Rebhorn as Matt's parents are a movie in and of themselves. Marc Maron also makes a darkly comic appearance as a touring comedian who gives Matt some crucial advice on his routine, though not so much on how to live his life.

Ultimately, Sleepwalk With Me is a soul-searching road movie that will keep you laughing, while making you hopeful that the mistakes we all make are for a good reason.

And for the uninitiated, it is a window into the world of comedy that leaves you wanting much, much more.

 

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