Mike Birbiglia isn’t out to mess with anybody. It is the nature of standup comedy Birbiglia’s being no exception to be pretty direct and clear with its themes and meanings. Standup doesn’t really have a terrific opportunity for mystery and subtext — if you want to deliver a message you put it right out there on the surface. Sleepwalk with Me employs the same mentality. It doesn’t force its audience to work to devise to really dig all that deep. We know right away what it wants us to think about and feel: it practically tells us. It wants us to laugh — we know that because jokes are delivered in pretty clear standup form right from the beginning through Birbiglia’s humble good-natured narration. He tells us his story right after telling us that he’s going to tell us his story. He’s straight with us throughout. We can relax and watch peaceably as bullet points are placed neatly and feelings are spelled out.
For many of us this might be a deterrent. We’re averse to such an easy approach to watching a movie — we think “Shouldn’t I be trying harder to get what’s going on?” Or “Isn’t a film that practically tells me what it wants me to feel not doing its job?” We’re inclined to believe that the more “layered” pictures are better. But not every movie sets out with the same goal. Ultimately a movie’s job is to make us think about and feel something. To teach us something. To tell us a story. Well Birbiglia’s movie is a story about storytelling. It’s only natural that the storyteller be an engaged and ever present aspect of the story in this case.
Sleepwalk with Me derived from Birbiglia’s one-man play book and (originally) actual life chronicles a young man’s ascension toward the role of successful standup comedian. Matt Pandamiglio is the comic’s pseudonym — when we meet him he’s moving in with his long-term go-getter girlfriend Abbey (Lauren Ambrose) despite a heap of uncertainty about their relationship. His state as an aspiring standup is rickety at best and his parents (James Rebhorn and Carol Kane) are hardly abettors to his psyche. And oh yeah… he sleepwalks. Scratch that — he sleep-goes-crazy.
We learn early on in the film that Pandamiglio (much like Birbiglia himself) suffers from a rare REM disorder wherein individuals act out the dreams they are having often quite dangerously. It is understood that Pandamiglio’s sleepwalking is linked to the anxieties he is having about his relationship and career; we are treated to an ominous (yet never obstructively heavy — even the darkest and saddest moments in this movie are peppered with some delightful yet humane comedy) tone regarding his disorder.
Pandamiglio’s comedy starts off as nothing to sneeze at either. At least until he embraces the true humors in his life: his relationship troubles and his nighttime disease. Pandamiglio finds the honesty in the sharing of intimate stories to be an unexpected goldmine for humor. As his relationship grows jagged his profession starts to kick off (treating him to an eclectic array of experiences on the road) we quickly learn what the movie is selling.
It’s selling honesty and it is doing so quite honestly. Just as Pandamiglio cannot subdue himself from telling this true forthright stories the movie does not subdue itself in sharing this message. No we do not really have to invest ourselves ardently to earn this message but we are not cheated out of an emotional experience. From beginning to end Sleepwalk with Me is so incredibly pleasant that it almost warrants thoughts of pessimism throughout: “When is this movie going to stop being so enjoyable?” It never reaches that point. The laughter doesn’t die out — the top-notch performances don’t valley. Sleepwalk maintains a humorous sentimental perfectly honest and open charm that makes one recognize just how valuable this kind of storytelling can be. It changes things for Pandamiglio; and it gives us a piece of film so candid unpretentious and human that you might literally not be able to stop smiling from titles to credits.
Director Jason Reitman made a very smart decision when approaching his new film Young Adult. His past two successes Juno and Up in the Air were stylized dramedies one with colorful dialogue and production design flourishes the other with precision camera work his director's hand evident at every turn. In his latest he pulls way back letting his lead character—a vile destructive former high school prom queen named Mavis (Charlize Theron)—do the talking. And talk she does—every word a stinging insult disillusioned wish holier-than-thou gripe or embarrassing truth. Reitman unleashes an unfiltered Theron and the results are gut-wrenching hilarious and powerful.
While working on her latest Sweet Valley High-esque book Mavis receives a mass e-mail from her high school boyfriend Buddy (Patrick Wilson) announcing that he and his wife are expecting their first child. This sets a fire under Mavis' ass and after chugging a 2-Liter of Diet Coke and throwing on a Hello Kitty tee she hits the road to take back the man that's rightfully hers. Mavis shacks up in a drab hotel located in the heart of her small Minnesota hometown and immediately proceeds to the bar to indulge in her favorite pastime: pounding back whiskey. There she runs in to one of her forgettable high school classmates Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt) who she only recalls after being reminded of a horrendous gay bashing that left both his legs crippled ("And I'm not even gay."). The two form an unlikely friendship—Matt being enamored by Mavis' pathetic quest Mavis needing an ear to talk off.
Young Adult's simple premise allows writer Diablo Cody (Juno The United States of Tara) to move Mavis from depressing suburban local to depressing suburban local with ease creating a playground of homogenized perfection for Theron's foul behavior. Whether she open-mouth chewing on fried chicken at the local KFC/Taco Bell covering up last night's hangover with a fresh facial or seducing Buddy at the Applebee's-esque restaurant Mavis never falters always looking down at her surroundings finding excuses for why she's not the source of her own problems.
Theron's performance is fearless one of the few crass female performances shaded with human complexity and empathy. Young Adult is a very funny film that works because of its star's ability to teeter the edge of comical and truly unlikable. Oswalt and Wilson amplify the main performance embodying their own grounded characters to properly riff with the vulgar Mavis. Matt is a very Patton-y character to begin with but between is jokey back-and-forths with Mavis is an inherent sadness one Oswalt surfaces with a contrasting subtly. Unlike Mavis Matt has the ability to rise above is own plight and change. His new friend is tragically a lost cause. At times the film's story feels too narrow never allowing us to really explore Mavis' other relationships but it's hard to naysay for wanting more.
Few movies attempt to mine comedy out of the bleakness of everyday life; even fewer do so while twisting storytelling conventions. You watch Young Adult with hopes for Mavis but Reitman and Cody aren't ready to indulge you. In Theron they've found one of the few actresses in town who can simultaneously look like a conventionally gorgeous blonde bombshell and complete make-up-caked crap a woman with the balls to take a character who relishes in schadenfreude. They don't squander that talent. From the first to the umpteenth Teenage Fanclub sound cue Mavis is delusional caught up in her own fantasy and willing to execute it at any cost. It's a truly cringe-worthy mission but it works because sadly we all know someone like that.