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.
Hollywood has had lots to say about the American school system as of late and whether you choose to believe the information presented to you via eye-opening documentaries like Waiting For Superman or fictional phenomenon’s like Fox’s Glee it’s clear that our educational institutions are out-of whack at best broken at worst. No one has been able to depict this disheartening downward spiral quite like director Tony Kaye with his new film Detachment. In it the reclusive auteur focuses on just a few weeks in the life of Henry Barthes a substitute teacher who gets more than he bargained for when he takes a job at a fledgling high school and in the process gives parents professors and kids a much-needed wake-up call.
In this short period of time Kaye dissects the contemporary classroom with unflinching realism. The grainy worn film stock he uses for his verite’ photography coupled with topical subject matter ranging from child prostitution and teen suicide to parental negligence makes the movie appear to be more a documentary than a narrative feature but that’s where Carl Lund’s poetic screenplay comes in. His prose is simultaneously beautiful and brutal effortlessly supplying existential excerpts for star Adrien Brody darkly comic bits for fellow teacher James Caan and up-to-the-minute slanguage for the teenage students. He also uses this star-studded stage (the ensemble includes Marcia Gay Harden Tim Blake Nelson and Christina Hendricks among many others) to touch upon the larger sociopolitical issues effecting our schools and children lashing out at numerous initiatives/establishments like “No Child Left Behind” that we’re led to believe have been implemented to increase residential property values instead of grades. Though the script begins to sound like a sermon at times it’s not intrusive enough to become distasteful. Quite simply it’s brazenly truthful.
However excessive exposition can often hurt a film’s momentum and Kaye gets unnecessarily sidetracked with the painful back-stories of his characters. Brody’s Barthes is our central protagonist so the sub-plot involving his aging ailing grandfather is essential in defining him but the filmmaker forces insight into the lives of almost every teacher (and a few of the students) down our throats. Individually each vignette is heartrending but distracting; the majority of them have little connection to the main narrative. Collectively they illustrate many of the problems that contemporary families face and more importantly create an emotional crescendo leading into the inevitably tragic conclusion.
The brilliance of this casual buildup to the film’s climax is a nod to Kaye’s storytelling aptitude. I found him utilizing the kind of in-your-face filmmaking tactics that Spike Lee made commonplace in his early movies most noticeably with close-ups on a few actors who irritably address the camera head-on (like in Do The Right Thing). In addition he intensifies the action with quick cuts and aggressive push-ins that elaborate on each character’s crisis. Perfection clearly isn't his strong point; Kaye frames his shots sloppily at times and doesn't attempt anything groundbreaking but maximizes the potential of tried-and-true lo-fi techniques. His stylistic abilities are second only to Brody’s performance which is subtle sad and sweet all at once. We take an emotional and psychological plunge with the native New Yorker as he navigates a teenage wasteland of sex drugs violence and depression but it’s all just another day at school to America’s urban youth.
Long absent since his freshman feature American History X Detachment is a welcome return for Tony Kaye whose commitment to the integrity of this story is marked by unrelenting bleakness in its tone and uncensored cynicism regarding the state of our schools. He doesn’t portray every educator as a saint or every student as a sinner; through Brody he imparts on us the uneasy truth about the direct correlation between our failure as parents and the failure our children: we're one and the same. The true genius in his film is not represented in the text of his commentary but in his ability to forge an explanatory mosaic from his characters’ varying but related points of view. Because of this there are multiple mini-narratives that run through Detachment and all of them are worthy of your attention.
Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood) is an angry racist ex-Marine -- recently widowed and living alone with his dog in his old neighborhood now overrun with mostly Asian gangs. When the next door youth A Hmong teen named Thao (Bee Vang) tries to steal his beloved Gran Torino he strikes up a relationship with the boy that profoundly changes both. As Thao and his sister Sue Lor (Ahney Her) are threatened by gang members Walt springs into action and sets out to clean up the neighborhood using his gun and anything else at his disposal. Meanwhile his son (Brian Haley) and daughter-in-law (Geraldine Hughes) show up trying to convince Dad that it is time to move away from the ever-changing suburb he has lived in for so many decades and try a retirement community a prospect Walt will have nothing to do with. Eastwood gives the performance of a lifetime in Gran Torino. You will be reminded of everything that has made him a major star for five decades and astonished at the remarkable new challenges he sets for himself -- even in the sunset of a stellar screen career. Even though Kowalski’s language and attitudes verge on the Archie Bunker mentality Eastwood’s dry delivery of such offending lines actually elicits more laughter than outrage. It’s almost as if we are looking at what ‘Dirty’ Harry Callahan might have been like in retirement. His humanity is eventually allowed to shine through and it’s the journey that the actor takes with this character that makes Torino so worthwhile. Amazingly Eastwood has never won an Oscar for acting but Gran Torino might change things. Of the young newcomers Vang and Her are sweetly convincing and good foils for Walt’s crankiness. As usual Clint Eastwood the director paces the drama in a leisurely manner letting things unfold in its own due time. More than any other recent film he’s directed including his most recent film Changeling Gran Torino seems defiantly old fashioned in its storytelling. Reportedly Clint didn’t change a word of first-time screenwriter Nick Schenk’s script and that does lend itself to some awkward moments particularly in scenes with the neighbors. Clint has always been interested in different aspects of the race issues in America and here uses a disgruntled Marine to express what is simmering below the surface in many pockets of American life. Although younger audiences may find the film’s rhythms rather slow the ultimate payoff is huge and Clint fans are likely to eat it up.