Likable, rather shambling comedy — drawn from his own autobiographical one-man show — with comedian Mike Birbiglia as star, co-writer and co-director, Sleepwalk with Me is a movie that will likely have greater resonance for his fans — and for fans of NPR’s This American Life — than more casual moviegoers. I fall into the latter category, which is why, I suspect, I found Birbligia’s persona and monotone delivery a little trying at times. That said, it may also have something to do with the novice screen actor not being fully comfortable with a new medium. For example, I can imagine the film’s opening — where, as he occasionally does over the course of the movie, Birbiglia directly addresses the audience — working better if he wasn’t selling it to the folks in the back row. As it is, I found it more obnoxious than funny. Even so, I liked the movie — in fact, I liked the movie better than its star.
Birbiglia plays a thinly-veiled version of himself named Matt Pandamiglio, a would-be stand-up comedian who works as a bartender who occasionally gets to go onstage between acts. It takes very little of his act to understand why he’s a bartender, because he’s…well, staggeringly unfunny. And yet we know there’s something there, since his voice-over comments on his life, family and position in the world actually are at the very least wryly humorous. Occasionally, they’re even more than that. The bulk of the film — despite its more literal examination of the sleepwalking of the title — is mostly about him finding his comedic voice and, in turn, his place in the world.
When the story begins, Matt’s being more or less pressured by his long-suffering girlfriend of eight years, Abby (Lauren Ambrose), to move in together. The truth is that he thinks this is a bad idea in its own right, while she actually wants something more — like marriage. This becomes obvious when they go to his parents’ (Carol Kane and TV actor James Rebhorn) house for his sister-in-law’s engagement party. In fact, his entire ( and somewhat bizarre) family is pushing him in the direction of marriage — a path he soon realizes Abby wants him to take. This is also where he has his first sleepwalking experience — when he becomes convinced that a hamper in their bedroom is a jackal. (This, by the way, sounds funnier than it plays thanks to Birbiglia’s delivery.)
In the midst of all this, Matt “lucks” into an agent (Sondra James), who — even after telling him he’s not that funny — can book him into really low-paying gigs (most of the profits are eaten up by travel expenses). It’s during this time that he’s advised to start incorporating material from his own life into his routine — and he starts actually getting laughs. The question, for him, is whether it’s somehow disloyal to his family — and especially Abby — to be doing this without their knowledge. And all the while, the sleepwalking disorder is worsening.
That’s really all there is to the film and in a way that’s enough (so long as you’re neither looking for exciting filmmaking nor hysterically funny comedy). The filmmaking is purely utilitarian (which can be fine with comedy, but not so hot with dream sequences), and the comedy is low-key and amusing. Taken on that level, it’s a nice 90 minutes. For fans of Birbiglia, it will very likely be more than nice. Not Rated.