SLEEPWALK WITH ME – The Review
Here’s a phrase we don’t get to hear much these days : this film is based on a radio program. Back in Hollywood’s Golden Age, radio was as much a source for feature films as television, novels, comic books, and video games are today. True, last year’s THE GREEN HORNET and next year’s THE LONE RANGER started as 1930’s radio shows, but most folks are familiar with their TV incarnations. And you could say that the autobiographical PRIVATE PARTS had its basis in radio as does the Howard Stern best seller. Well, SLEEPWALK WITH ME began as a popular true story told by stand-up comic Mike Birbiglia on NPR’s ” This American Life” hosted by Ira Glass ( who co-wrote the screenplay ). So we could say that it’s a movie about stand-up following films ( in comic jargon they’d be the warm-ups ) going back to LENNY, PUNCHLINE, MAN IN THE MOON, and the recent FUNNY PEOPLE. TV struck gold with Jerry Seinfeld playing a thinly disguised version of his comic self, followed by Bernie Mac and the current FX channel hit, ” Louie ” starring Louis CK. Can Birbiglia go from that brick wall ( and single spotlight ) and kill ( jargon again ) on the big screen? Here’s the hook : unlike many of those above mentioned performers, he’s got a problem many of us have had to deal with ( although not to this life-threatening extreme ).
Birbiglia plays aspiring stand-up comic Matt Pandamiglio ( pretty close, eh? nobody introducing him at the clubs pronounces it correctly ). He’s living with his gorgeous girlfriend of 8 ( ! ) years Abby ( Lauren Ambrose ), who teaches full-time at a local college. Everything seems to be going great until Matt’s sister Janet gets engaged. Then the pressure really starts from his parents ( James Rebhorn and Carol Kane ). Abby insists that she’s in no hurry to tie the knot, but late one night Matt discovers that the Tivo is filled with episodes of a bridal reality show. He’s got to get serious about comedy and stop tending bar ( and cleaning the toilets ) at a local comedy club. He’s meets a third-string talent agent ( a step or two down from BROADWAY DANNY ROSE ) and ends up taking all the low-paying, out-of-the-way gigs because he’s got a car. The long hours driving, inattentive audiences, and marriage pressures exacerbate Matt’s old sleep problem. As the title state’s he’s a sleepwalker. But not the kind that just circles the bed before hopping back under the covers. No, he reacts to his dreams, verbally shouting and acting out violently. And increasingly endangering himself. Can Matt eliminate the pressures and tension before a trip to slumberland turns deadly?
I’ve probably made the film sound like a ” disease of the week ” TV movie, but it’s really, really funny. It takes a bit to adjust to his rhythm, but Birbiglia’s wry, laid-back humor works well as the film’s narrator. Still, his early struggling scenes are painful. You can almost smell the flop sweat as the camera puts you alone on stage before an uninterested and often antagonistic audience. Oh , and inattentive too, thanks to that nemesis of live performers ( and film fans ), the cell phone. Lenny Bruce never had to deal with that! While Birbiglia tells a great joke, he’s not a strong screen actor ( Seinfeld had the same problem for the first few seasons of his show ). He ‘s overshadowed by most of the pros, who are truly at the top of their game. It’s always a pleasure to see Ambrose ( perhaps best known for TV’s ” Six Feet Under ” ) on screen. Her Abby is so outgoing and delightful that you wonder why she’s stuck with a fella’ who seems to be spinning his wheels. C’mon Matt! Kane is an adorable sprite as Matt’s wacky Mom ( loves ordering cakes over the internet ), while Rebhorn is a terrific counterbalance as the overbearing, always agitated father. Most of the time he’s obnoxious, but often I actually agreed with him ( ” Marry that girl! ” ” Get a career plan! ” ” See a doctor for that sleepwalking! ” ). The film is peppered with small roles played by many vets from the comedy world. Kristen Schaal and Wyatt Cenac from ” The Daily Show ” are there along with WANDERLUST director David Wain. Stand-up guru Marc Maron plays a thinly disguised version of himself as headliner Marc Mulheren who inspires Matt to be more truthful performing. Birbiglia does a fine job of directing along with Seth Barrish. SLEEPWALK WITH ME captures the ups and down of telling jokes on the road and offers an honest, non “rom-com” look at the difficulties in a relationship. I’m grateful that those nocturnal escapades didn’t silence this unique comic voice. May you never lose that sleeping bag, Mike!
4.5 Out of 5 Stars
SLEEPWALK WITH ME plays exclusively in the St. Louis area at Landmark’s Tivoli Theatre