Film review: ‘Sleepwalk With Me’ goes gentle into the night
October 11, 2012
Stand-up comedians have a wildly complex relationship with their audience. At their core, comics want desperately to be liked – why else would they be trying to make people laugh if not for an enormous desire to be adored? At the same time, to actually be funny, a comedian needs to challenge an audience, often to the point of being repulsive, vulgar, intimidating.
Which makes “Sleepwalk With Me” a most curious movie. (Another reason behind its oddness: it is adapted from a one-man, off-Broadway stage production.) The film stars Mike Birbiglia, a real-life comedian-turned-writer/director, as Matt Pandamiglio, who is struggling to make it as a stand-up comic. Pandamiglio has his darker side: He rips on his well-to-do parents (James Rebhorn and Carol Kane). He is perfectly willing to live as a slovenly bum as he puts landing low-budget stand-up gigs over pursuing a more proper career. Most significant, Matt blithely mistreats his girlfriend Abby (Lauren Ambrose). Matt earnestly spells out just what a catch he knows Abby to be: She’s adorable, good-natured, supportive, smart. Abby is a vocal coach; her students love her.
Here’s the catch: Birbiglia plays Matt as thoroughly likable. Even more than making Matt funny, Birbiglia emphasizes just how agreeable his character is. Matt often talks directly to the camera, a technique that establishes a confessional bond with the viewer – Matt might be a jerk, but at least he knows it. Even when he is lying to Abby, leading her on, cheating on her, he remains meek and pleasant; we can hear him apologizing, even if Abby can’t.
Emotional turmoil, suppressed by day, expresses itself at night, and Matt’s case starts to become extreme. He sleepwalks, with his episodes becoming increasingly imaginative and dangerous. Forget the stereotypical zombie-like portrayal of the somnambulist with his arms thrust out in front of him. Matt’s nighttime escapades are revealing and funny.
But the sleepwalking is not the heart of “Sleepwalk With Me.” The film examines the relationship phobias Matt experiences during his waking hours – the fear of commitment, worry over the pain he is causing Abby, and more than anything, the gripping anxiety that settling down will threaten his career.
A story of a stand-up comedian who dies onstage, who is stricken with remorse over his relationships, who sleepwalks, might have made for brutal material. “Sleepwalk With Me” is anything but brutal. Birbiglia calmly steers the story into gentleness, and into a humble, amiable look at life’s fears.