Sleepwalk With Me

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 04/27/12 14:06:16

"NPR + Indie film: A natural combination."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

SCREENED AT INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL BOSTON 2012: "Sleepwalk with Me" may not have a large built-in audience, but fans of writer/director/star Mike Birbiglia and the National Public Radio segments from which this movie evolved may be the exact right niche for an independent film like this to have; who's going to be more aware of its existence or ready to see it in theaters? They likely won't be disappointed by how it translates to the big screen, and the good news is that it's both funny and substantial enough to appeal to a larger audience.

Matt (Birbiglia) and Abby (Lauren Ambrose) have been dating for eight years, since meeting in college, and in that time they haven't exactly wound up where they expected: Matt aspires to be a comedian but is still tending bar; Abby is a vocal coach instead of a rock star. Still, they're pretty comfortable after moving into a new place together, at least until Mike's sister gets engaged and everyone, especially his parents (James Rebhorn & Carol Kane) starts asking when they'll finally tie the knot. That he starts sleepwalking right about then probably isn't a great sign.

Birbiglia has been honing this autobiographical material for a while, presenting it as part of his act, stories on NPR's "This American Life", and as a one-man show. There are plenty of remnants of those other media in the finished product, as Birbiglia tends to address his audience directly; he opens and closes the movie with Matt in a car, addressing the audience as if they're sitting in the passenger seat, jumping back there on occasion for an aside or a little bit of explanation. Sometimes this narration can seem a little on the nose (following "that's my mom, she does this" with his mom doing that), but telling stories is the thing that Birbiglia does well, and it would almost be wasteful to insist that someone with that sort of skill limit himself to just acting as if the camera wasn't there.

That's not to say he couldn't necessarily have handled doing the movie that way; though essentially playing yourself is more difficult than it sounds, he does all right. Better than all right, actually; while he sometimes has the comedian's tendency to treat every line as a declaration to the audience, he's also surprisingly good at showing the toll that somnambulism combined with long periods on the road is taking on him mentally and physically. He's fortunate to have a nice cast to work with, too; Lauren Ambrose, for example, manages to give the audience the other side of this relationship despite neither having many scenes dedicate to Amy nor the chance to address the audience directly. James Rebhorn gets a fair amount of nuance out of the script as the somewhat intrusive father, while Carol Kane unfortunately only gets one note to hit as the mother. Sondra James steals every scene she's in as the straight-talking agent who takes Matt on.

Together, Birbiglia, co-director Seth Barrish, Ira Glass and Matt's brother Joe (the other two screenwriters) make a quite entertaining movie - there are plenty of quality gags executed well, and a surprising amount are visual rather than verbal. Even more impressive is that they get all those laughs without making a complete farce out of the story - as much as Matt's dreams are often very funny (with excellent design and photography), the depiction of sleepwalking itself is often quite unnerving. And while "Matt Pandamiglio" is not, strictly speaking, Mike Birbiglia, it's still not easy to re-enact just how self-centered (and hopeless-seeming) one was in one's youth.

A good storyteller can't be afraid of that, though, and if nothing else, Birbiglia has earned a reputation as a guy who can tell a story. It turns out he's a pretty passable filmmaker as well; at the very least, he's got no trouble translating this well-honed material to a new medium.

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