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.