Mike Birbiglia’s life story is determined to come to you in all forms. In 2010, the comedian’s book Sleepwalk with Me and Other Painfully True Stories — a series of stories, half painful and half funny, about the comedian’s life, career and bouts with sleepwalking — was released. Sleepwalk with Me had already been an off-Broadway show, and reading the book was more fun if you listened to some of his bits first; Birbiglia’s delivery is that of a man who’s not sure whether you’re going to laugh or be horrified, and he lowballs jokes like nobody’s business. You might not be rolling in the aisles, but you’ll choke out the laughter of horrified recognition.
Now you can experience Birbiglia’s life as a movie: Sleepwalk with Me, in which the writer/director/actor plays Matt Pandamiglio, a struggling comedian who is also struggling in his longtime relationship to Abby (Lauren Ambrose). Matt, not quite as far along in his career as Birbiglia, works at a bar where he also occasionally performs. When friends stop by, he asks if they watched, and they tell him no. They already heard those jokes. In college.
Is this a sly reference to the fact that the Birbiglia fans in the audience have already heard the movie’s jokes? Maybe, and maybe not. Sleepwalk, which is occasionally interrupted by knowing commentary from the Matt of a few years hence, takes familiar material and twists it slightly, bringing new themes into focus even as it relies heavily on Birbiglia’s tales of screwy gigs, stoic audiences and downright dangerous sleepwalking episodes. The rest of Matt’s life isn’t much more settled; his sister’s recent engagement has thrown his relationship into a new kind of turmoil. His parents (played with cheek and sass by James Rebhorn and Carol Kane) don’t exactly model the relationship Matt hopes to have someday. They exist in peculiar, squirrely orbit with each other, perfectly content to communicate in cheerful shouts. He’s been with Abby for eight nice years, since college, but when she starts pressing for marriage, he basically panics.
The girlfriend who longs to get married is an old cliché (and one I could do without), but Birbiglia and his small stable of cowriters make an effort to flesh out the stereotype, and to pin down spineless Matt, whose inability to just tell Abby he isn’t ready drives most of the conflict. Ambrose, who can speak volumes with one lifted eyebrow, gives the best angry-girlfriend you could ask for, and just as it’s clear Matt isn’t ready for marriage, it’s apparent that Abby is more interested in the idea than the man.
But it’s Matt’s story, and it’s Matt we follow as his career picks up, his sleepwalking worsens and he avoids anything resembling responsibility. After nights of failing with jokes about Cookie Monster’s eating disorder, he stretches out, cracking a joke about marriage, and the laughter is instant. As Matt’s life disintegrates, his jokes get better, trading on the fear and angst he harbors about relationships and the future. His coming-of-age, delayed though it is, is a funny, messy, recognizable exploration of the way life and art blend and meld, one feeding — or choking — the other. This isn’t groundbreaking stuff, especially if you’ve read the book, or seen the show, or heard the “This American Life” segment. But if you’re going to revisit a familiar story, you could certainly do worse than Sleepwalk with Me.
SLEEPWALK WITH ME: Directed by Mike Birbiglia. Screenplay by Mike Birbiglia, Joe Birbiglia, Ira Glass and Seth Barrish. Cinematography, Adam Beckman. Editor, Geoffrey Richman. Music, Andrew Hollander. Starring Mike Birbiglia, Lauren Ambrose, James Rebhorn and Carol Kane. IFC Films, 2012. Not rated. 90 minutes. Three stars.