Comedian Mike Birbiglia’s autobiographical monologue Sleepwalk With Me is now a movie directed by and starring Birbiglia along with other actors. It’s a giant leap, existentially speaking. The comedian-monologuist (or, as my friend Josh Kornbluth sometimes calls himself, monologiste) is responsible to no perspective other than his or her own — the opposite of a dramatist, whose very reason for being is to lay out different, unreconciled (often irreconcilable) points of view. Does Birbiglia manage to cross the solipsistic divide? He does not. But he’s honest enough to make his own iffy grasp of everyone else’s thoughts and feelings part of the story. From start to finish, his character, called Matt Pandamiglio, is all by his lonesome — reaching out of the fog. He’s a funny fog person.
Birbiglia’s story has three strands. Foremost is Matt’s inability to make an emotional (or legal) commitment to his (too?) levelheaded girlfriend, Abby (Lauren Ambrose), a teacher and yoga instructor with whom he has lived for eight years. Could it be that he’s too haunted by the example of his pedantic dad (James Rebhorn) and daft mom (Carol Kane), whom he thinks have been together longer than the people who “invented marriage” ever intended, life spans being so much shorter back then? Matt’s future is a question mark in other ways. He wants to be a stand-up comic, but his jokes are in the same impersonal observational mode as other hacks’, and he offers them haltingly, as if poised to slink quietly offstage. His final problem is the most unusual — and potentially deadly. He acts out his dreams. He sleepwalks.
Birbiglia and his collaborators (among them, Ira Glass, who co-wrote the screenplay with Birbiglia’s brother Joe and Seth Barrish) have shrewdly (reportedly in post-production) framed Sleepwalk With Me as a first-person tale, relayed to the audience while Mike/Matt is driving a car. Birbiglia narrates, too. He also tells part of his story in stand-up scenes within the film. In the unlikely event your sympathies stray, he says, “Remember: You’re on my side.” (Like many other good lines in the movie, this is plucked from a different Birbiglia act.) The result is that we expect and even look forward to having onscreen events interpreted for us. Matt’s hook-up with Abby (seen in flashback) isn’t a marvel of screwball repartee, but when Birbiglia explains his view of love in voice-over — that it’s rooted in someone else recognizing your “secret special skill” that no one else knows about — we get an elegant picture.
It’s fun to see Birbiglia’s stand-up persona — and career — evolve onscreen, in large part because it offers opportunities for cameos by colleagues of his like Jessi Klein, Kristen Schaal, and Wyatt Cenac. Alex Karpovsky has a chillingly funny bit as a comic who rants about others’ successes in Hollywood. (He is particularly vexed about the TV star who built a whiffleball stadium in the backyard.) Sleepwalk With Me vividly evokes the feelings of hopelessness, even shame, when a routine bombs, as well as the competitive but affectionate (often surprisingly intimate) connections among comics. Marc Maron is wonderfully dry as a worldly stand-up who tries to make Matt feel better about a ghastly set (“It was okay,” he says, helpfully. “Well, okay is kind of a strong word … ”) and then seizes on something the younger man says about his personal life as an example of what’s missing from Matt’s act. He’s the Jewish Freudian Obi-Wan who gives Matt permission to home in on his domestic unhappiness for the sake of his art — however that might complicate his life. There’s a suggestion that Matt is only learning the depth of his dissatisfaction from his own jokes, his unconscious clarifying what he can’t.
The dramatic scenes between Matt and Abby don’t cut very deep, though, and Abby is so underwritten that Ambrose can only cut loose in a drunk scene, when the character’s anger and helplessness gushes out. Moment to moment, Sleepwalk With Me is smooth and very entertaining, but it’s arrested somewhere between fiction and autobiography. Matt’s particular form of sleep disorder is such an evocative metaphor for his sleepwalking through life that it’s too bad the writers didn’t play it up a bit to make it even scarier and funnier and more connected to ongoing battles. Ira Glass (who also co-produced) has strong and public feelings about autobiographical writers taking too much poetic license (i.e., lying), but in narrative film, you need to cultivate your inner James Frey. The monologist is always in control; the dramatic filmmaker lives to let his/her characters run away with the story.