Photo: IFC PicturesComic Mike Birbiglia's voice seems perpetually perplexed not only by the strangeness of whatever situation he's in but by the words coming out of his mouth. His spacey delivery and his shambling demeanor belie the sharpness of his observations, making them feel unexpected and frequently hilarious. He opens his movie "Sleepwalk With Me" addressing the camera directly while driving his car. "I'm going to tell you a story, and it's true…I always have to tell people that," he says before going on a meandering spiel about shutting off your cell phones.
Birbiglia, who also wrote and directed the movie, plays Matt Pandamiglio, a thinly fictionalized version of himself. Matt works as bartender for a low-rent comedy club and dreams of actually working as a standup comic. When he does get the odd five-minute slot on stage, though, his act is stiff and awkward, filled with unfunny gags about the Cookie Monster.
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The only thing that seems to be going right in his life is his relationship with his smart, vivacious longtime girlfriend Abby (Lauren Ambrose). While she's eager to make their relationship more legally formal, Matt is much more ambivalent on the subject. "I've decided to get married when I'm sure that nothing else good is going to happen in my life," he quips later in the movie.
As Matt's relationship with Abby slowly, painfully deteriorates, his career takes off. He gets a third-rate chain-smoking agent who books him on one low-paying gig after another out in remote college towns. The opportunity gives him not only a chance to hone his shtick, but also an excuse to get away from the elephant in the room at home.
The thing that saves "Sleepwalk" from being yet another soggy man-child coming-of-age story (I'm looking at you, Mark Duplass) is that Birbiglia and his onscreen counterpart have REM sleep behavior disorder, which causes sufferers to act out what they dream. Not long after the impasse in his relationship with Abby comes to light, Matt is discovered in the middle of the night kicking the crap out of a laundry hamper, shouting, "There's a jackal in the room!"
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Later in the movie, Birbiglia plunges the viewer into his dreams. They might not have the surrealist flair of Fellini, but they do provide a great setup for the bizarre places where Matt find himself waking up -- on the floor after falling from a dresser, in a running shower, in a hotel hallway. Even though the stress of the relationship and the road worsens Matt's condition, he shies away from getting treatment.
For anyone who's heard Birbiglia's piece on sleepwalking on the NPR radio series "This American Life" or caught his critically praised off-Broadway one-man show or read his New York Times best-selling book on the subject, you know that his REM sleep behavior disorder comes damn close to killing him. The telling of that moment in the radio piece is both touching and really funny partially because of Birbiglia's bewildered delivery. It lacks that same impact on the screen. Though the translations from radio to stage to film might not have been wholly successful, it is still a charming goofy movie.
See the trailer for 'Sleepwalk With Me':
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