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.
In the 2006 animated blockbuster Happy Feet an alienated emperor penguin named Mumbles found empowerment through tap-dancing and in so doing managed to both attract a mate and stop the overfishing that imperiled his Antarctic habitat. Directed by George Mitchell – the same George Mitchell who gave us the post-apocalyptic Mad Max trilogy and the almost despairingly bleak Babe: Pig in the City – Happy Feet paired its broadly conventional narrative with a darker sensibility not often seen in talking-animal fare.
The film’s sequel Happy Feet Two finds Mitchell (co-directing with Gary Eck) both more jovial and more easily distracted. The story begins straightforwardly enough with Mumbles (Elijah Wood) now grown-up and by all appearances well-adjusted ceding the mantle of self-discovery to his son Erik (Ava Acres). Boogie fever has swept the once dance-averse penguin nation but in a cruelly ironic twist Erik has inherited none of his father’s nifty moves. But just as Happy Feet Two appears intent on recycling its predecessor’s basic storyline the film abruptly changes course and embarks on a series of detours that seemed geared more as fodder for throwaway gags and showy set pieces than anything else. The disparate narrative elements while enjoyable in isolation never quite coalesce into a meaningful whole leaving us entertained but unfulfilled.
As before Happy Feet Two features a variety of buoyant song-and-dance numbers with Alecia Moore (aka P!nk) lending her formidable pipes to spirited re-workings of “Rhythm Nation” and “Under Pressure ” among others. Robin Williams returns for double duty as both Ramon a diminutive oversexed Latin lover and Lovelace a fiery Southern-preacher type. (Lovelace later adopts a Rastafarian dialect allowing Williams to achieve the rare culture-caricature trifecta.) His voracious scenery-devouring is all the more impressive given the grandeur of the scenery. Not to be left out of the quasi-Vaudevillian comic shenanigans Hank Azaria lays on a thick Scandinavian shtick as Sven a charismatic Arctic émigré who presents himself as the only penguin in the world who can fly. Azaria is a hoot but the film’s best moments come courtesy of the cast’s highest-profile additions Matt Damon and Brad Pitt voicing Bill and Will (respectively) two tiny krill in search of meaning at the bottom of the food chain.
In the political thriller The Ides of March – George Clooney’s adaptation of the stage drama Farragut North – Ryan Gosling stars as Stephen Meyers campaign press secretary to Mike Morris (Clooney) a leading candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination. Savvy self-assured and blessed with a preternatural ability to spin a story in his candidate’s favor Stephen is a fast-rising figure with a dazzlingly bright future. Unlike his more seasoned – and cynical – campaign-manager boss Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman) Stephen all of 30 years old still boasts something of an idealistic streak. He believes in Morris not just as a meal ticket but as someone who just might make the world a better place.
Stephen’s idealism and ambition come into conflict when in the feverish days leading up to the pivotal Ohio primary he suffers a series of judgment lapses that threaten to derail his promising career. Teased with the prospect of a job offer he’s lured into a meeting with Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti) the campaign manager of Morris’ main Democratic rival – a major no-no in a business that prizes loyalty above all else. Later he beds a beguiling young intern Molly (Evan Rachel Wood) who unwittingly drops a bombshell that could very well bring down the entire Morris campaign.
There’s nothing particularly revelatory about Ides of March. Our eyes were long ago opened to the amorality and viciousness of electoral politics. And goodness knows we’ve witnessed political scandals far more salacious than anything depicted in the film. Ides of March’s strength lies in the power of its storytelling in the way that Clooney brings together several distinctive headstrong characters and sets them against each other in a riveting game of intrigue. It helps compensate for the been-there done-that familiarity of the topics explored.
Clooney is very much an actor’s director and Ides of March is a testament to how absorbing it can be to witness skilled performers operating at the peak of their powers. Gosling is particularly fascinating to watch as his character awakens to the severity of his predicament. When Stephen is dismissed from the Morris campaign after Zara learns of his meeting with Duffy the firing triggers in him something akin to a fight-or-flight instinct. His livelihood endangered he scrambles to outwit his former colleagues seizing upon tragedy and scandal to worm his way back into the fold. All pretense of idealism vanishes and his expression betrays the slightest hint of derangement. The game has claimed him.