Almost anyone can name a few obscure comedians who can bust your gut even though few others have ever heard their names. One who kills me is Mike Birbiglia. He’s got a deadpan delivery similar to Stephen Wright (for those over 40) and a delayed, self-deprecating style much like Ellen DeGeneres. He is very relatable to boring people like me, and I mean that seriously because, other than me, I don’t know anyone who even knows who he is.
Matt Pandamiglio (Birbiglia) is a struggling comedian/bartender whose father regularly emasculates him and his career. Abby (Lauren Ambrose), his girlfriend of 8-ish years, drops subtle hints that she thinks it’s time they took their relationship more seriously, which Matt pretends not to notice until he finds too many wedding and baby shows on their DVR. The stress of knowing that he doesn’t want what she wants, and knowing that nobody really has any faith in his comedy career, manifests itself into sleepwalking episodes in which he imagines being chased by wild dogs. At first it’s just walking around is apartment kicking a trash can. Eventually, as his career begins a more upward swing, he is unexpectedly traveling from city to city while trying to maintain his relationship with Abby. As a result of all that stress, his sleepwalking increases to the point of threatening his life.
Birbiglia as Pandamiglio drops in occasionally to narrate the film, addressing the camera directly while scattering a good handful of jokes that you could find on any of his three comedy albums, all of which I recommend. There’s occasional interaction with other comedians, advice and suggestions on what is or isn’t funny, the “isn’t funny” including everything Matt is doing on stage. When he talks off the cuff with one comedian about his relationship, he is predictably told to talk about that stuff on stage. That’s when things change for him.
Birbiglia is very comfortable in front of the camera, as most comics should be, but what helps is the autobiographical story. It’s easier to talk when you’re telling the truth. However, it’s not so easy to talk when your father, excellent character actor James Rebhorn, is dissecting you like a fresh salmon. Not-so-inconspicuously slipping Matt some emergency cash in full view of Abby, asking if he wants a car, and complaining about how many EZ-PASS tolls are on his bill are tough to watch. Carol Kane as his mother lightens the mood with less important but always positive attitude. Abby (Lauren Ambrose), the girlfriend, might be the girlfriend most guys dream about, unless you’re a perpetual bachelor or hate redheads ready to jump in bed whenever you want. Ambrose is one of those faces that you’ve sworn you’ve seen before and looks like a cross between Katherine Heigl and Jessica Chastain.
Co-directed by both Birbigilia and Seth Barrish, whose résumé includes a handful of episodes from The Sopranos and Law and Order, the film cost a little over $300,000 but managed to earn over $2 million. Not a bad job for an Indie film, especially because it won the Audience Award at Sundance.
Unless you’re a big fan of Birbiglia as I am, you won’t be thrilled by Sleepwalk with Me. The condition is not explored deeply enough to learn much, and the comedy is not so outstanding that the jokes alone would carry the film. Birbiglia’s best jokes (such as why Roger Clemens hates him and what it would be like to invite President Bush to a picnic) would have been out of place in this story, and you’d have more fun if you were lucky enough to catch him on Comedy Central. He’s just so damn likable that I feel bad that I’m not more impressed by the film. The few jokes that make it into the film are not his best, but knowing the potential of his best helped me watch it.
If you’re a big Indie film fan, then by all means go for it. If you’re a comedy/comedian fan who enjoys some of the behind-the scenes moment that slowly build into a minute or two on stage, then watch Louie on FX. But if you’re a Birbiglia fan, then you can part with 81 minutes and give it a shot.
Teacher gives it a C.