It takes little away from the quirky, deadpan comedy “Sleepwalk with Me” to say it worked better as a stand-up monologue. The monologue was exquisitely-timed and drawn out. The film, for a film, is short and droll. It’s slight. And the dead spots, the routine observations about love and the stand-up comic’s life, stand out more.
“Sleepwalk With Me” opens Friday at The Enzian.
Comic Mike Birbiglia’s nightmarish sleepwalking routine gained its greatest fame as a segment on public radio’s “This American Life,” and in adapting it to the screen, he’s merely added recreations of events that were perfectly vivid in our minds’ eye, thanks to the magic of radio.
On the screen, though he manages a few novel touches (he breaks the fourth wall and narrates his story), the mannered “This American Life” style of delivery — intentional stammers and pauses, aka “Ira Glass-itis” — seem even more precious. As charming as the film often is, the laughs in a ten minute “bit” are thin and drawn out in an 80 minute movie.
Birbiglia is Matt Pandamiglio in the film, a failing New York comic who has these troubling sleepwalking episodes. What could be behind it? His cranky doctor-dad (James Rebhorn, never funnier) wants to know. Mom (Carol Kane) is also daffily curious.
But Abby (Lauren Ambrose), his lovely, talented live-in girlfriend, is alarmed. He’s started doing this right around the time his sister announced her engagement. And the best he’s been able to muster with Abby is “You don’t want to get married, right?”
Matt stumbles out of bed, kicking a clothes hamper — “There’s a JACKAL in the room!”
He imagines himself collecting Olympic honors — for dustbusting. The prize isn’t a medal, or just a bouquet of roses. There’s a baby in that bouquet. Abby was just hinting that she’d like to have a baby.
Maybe they should take “a breather,” he wonders. Just another mixed signal to the dismayed Abby.
Matt’s stand-up act is a disaster. He’s uncomfortable on stage and too lazy to develop new material. But when he mentions his life-issues to a veteran comic (Marc Maron), the guy helpfully says “You should talk about THAT.” Next thing you know, Matt’s on the road, playing dives, he’s getting laughs.
But his little problems — actually, pretty big ones — aren’t going away.
The film’s central conceit — “Matt” turning to the camera and jokingly introducing this part of the story or revealing his state of mind about that just-passed event — is a cute way of keeping that “stand-up routine” feel.
“Before I tell you this part of the story, I want to remind you that YOU’RE ON MY SIDE.”
Ambrose isn’t given a lot to play. But Birbiglia is a mildly-amusing screen presence, with decent timing and that comic’s fearlessness about laying it all out there.
Still, as amusing as the stand-up’s “tales from the road” always are, it’s an over-familiar litany of long drives, cheap clubs, cheaper club owners, somnambulist audiences and backstage “war stories” afterward. Birbiglia gives us a nearly-giddy moment when Matt has his first paying gig that involves staying in a motel. He reads the Gideon’s Bible aloud, jumps on the bed and acts like a teenager on his first field trip.
“Sleepwalk With Me” shortchanges the relationship side of things, but that doesn’t prevent us from seeing the climax a mile before it arrives. The film gets by on Birbiglia’s easygoing charm, something always evident, whether he’s kicking jackals in the dark, learning the ropes from older comics or just coping with a family and girlfriend whose pressures — even comic or gentle ones — are keeping him up at night.
MPAA Rating: Not rated, with mild sexual content, a little profanity
Cast: Mike Birbiglia, Lauren Ambrose, James Rebhorn, Carol Kane.
Credits: Directed by Mike Birbiglia, written by Mike and Joe Birbiglia, Seth Barrish and Ira Glass. An IFC release.
Running time: 1:20