Mike Birbiglia’s Sleepwalk with Me won an audience award at last year’s Sundance Film Festival. Within five minutes of the movie starting, it’s easy to understand why. Adapted by Birbiglia from his own semi-autobiographical stand-up act, the film recounts the trials and tribulations of an aspiring comedian in a flagging relationship whose life becomes disrupted by a series of dangerous sleepwalking incidents. Such an outlandish affliction offers no shortage of comic opportunities, and Birbiglia and his collaborators – including producer and This American Life host Ira Glass – have plenty of fun with the concept. Yet as entertaining as the movie can be, it’s the smaller, more poignant material in between the big laughs that makes the final product so charming.
Birbilgia plays Matt, a wannabe comic on the cusp of his thirties who feels like he’s stuck in a rut. He bartends at a New York nightclub where he’d rather be performing, but the glimpses we’re given of his act suggest that he might be better suited serving drinks. His feelings of inadequacy are compounded by his bullying father (James Rebhorn; Real Steel) and the impending nuptials of his sister, an event which sees him questioning his own commitment to his long-term girlfriend Abby (Lauren Ambrose; TVs Six Feet Under). It’s not that Matt doesn’t love her; in fact he’s pretty sure she’s the best thing he’s got going for him. Yet the idea of settling down – marriage, children – fills him with feelings of dread.
Ironically, it’s his anxiety about his love-life that finally breathes life into his career. “I don’t want to get married until I’m absolutely sure that nothing else good can happen to me”, he confesses to an audience one night on the advice of a comedy veteran. “If the people who invented marriage knew it would last 40 years, they never would have done it”. Slowly, Matt’s act grows more popular, and he starts receiving offers to play clubs and colleges interstate. But the pressure of success, on top of his already tenuous relationship with Abby, has an unexpected side effect: REM Sleep Behaviour Disorder. In layman’s terms, Matt starts acting out his dreams.
At one point, Matt dreams of winning third place at the “Dustbuster Olympics”, only to be handed a baby instead of a prize. In another instance, he’s in a top secret military control room where his father – dressed like a General – chastises him for his lack of direction. The more surreal the situation, the more hilariously matter-of-fact the execution. But the scenes aren’t just fodder for comedy. As the film goes on and Matt’s dreams get more vivid, so too do we gain greater insight into his fears, insecurities and desires.
And that’s why the movie really works. Despite Matt’s failings, of which there are many, you just can’t help but root for the poor guy. Birbiglia’s performance is wonderfully naturalistic, while moments of self-refection and self-effacing humour – delivered in voiceover and, in cutaways, directly to the camera – offer us the comfort that he will, eventually, get his shit together. Ambrose is just as strong, bringing sympathy and dimension to what is otherwise a fairly stock-standard role. Between them, the two actors ensure that Sleepwalk with Me succeeds not just as an offbeat comedy, but as a bittersweet relationship movie as well.