The happiest moments of Matt Pandamiglio’s (Mike Birbiglia) journey in Sleepwalk with Me are the ones in which he’s alone in an off-road motel, gnawing on second-rate pizza and fielding third-rate proposals from his agent (Sondra James). While exploring these stand-up gigs — gigs that, in addition to being spread all across the Northeast, usually offer little in terms of both audience involvement and financial benefit — Matt is also in the midst of an eight-year relationship with Abby (Lauren Ambrose), an attractive, sensible woman whom he nevertheless chooses to distance himself from in favor of the chance to host poorly-attended lip-syncing contests.
This is one of the ways in which Birbiglia’s film, based heavily on his own real-life experiences, quietly and convincingly forms a moving portrait of the difficulty — or, in some cases, the near impossibility — of balancing personal passions with professional ones. Most of Matt’s family, from his ditzy mother (Carol Kane) to his hard-nosed father (James Rebhorn) to his just-married sister (Cristin Milioti), are intrusively alert to the personal ones, constantly asking Matt why he hasn’t yet proposed to the woman he’s been in love with for nearly a decade.
But Matt simply sees things differently. He loves Abby, but has no desire to solidify that with a ring that, to him, is nothing but a shiny object that people other than himself fawn over. When he’s called away from his position as a full-time bartender to bring his amateurish act on the road, he has no second thoughts about leaving Abby behind and living out of motels for weeks at a time. He enjoys the rush of the stage, and the post-performance camaraderie that two comedians can have over a few beers. One of the film’s finest scenes involves a conversation with Marc Maron, who suggests to Matt that unloading his relationship concerns to his audience could greatly improve the quality of his comedy.
Another main thread of the film’s narrative, as suggested by the winningly colloquial title, is the trouble unleashed by Matt’s REM behavior disorder, which causes him to partake in very dangerous physical activity during the middle of the night. It starts out humorously, with Matt mistaking his laundry hamper for a wild animal, but if you know anything about Birbiglia’s experiences with the affliction, then you know that the jest of REM behavior disorder is equally balanced out, if not outright overshadowed, by its potential bodily harm.
What makes Sleepwalk with Me surprisingly special is the specificity of the film’s inquiries into basic human conflict. Because it investigates familiar narrative territory, it has an uphill battle to fight in terms of developing a substantial effect, but it gets the job done — and then some — through the poignant perception of Birbiglia’s observations. He occasionally pauses the progressing story to speak directly to the viewer, and these instances solidify a sense of moving authenticity. Birbiglia knows that the obstacles his character is facing are largely insurmountable ones, so he doesn’t preside over the story with the stench of a guy who thinks he’s figured out the answers to all of life’s questions.
And that thematic earnestness works in harmony with the film’s witty appeal. Because we know Matt and sincerely like him, his performances are funny for us even when they’re not particularly funny for the small crowds listening to him. However, as he takes Maron’s advice to heart and enhances his material with personal experience, the people he plays for grow more accepting, and the film’s thoughtful power starts to naturally reveal itself. This first-time feature may be modest in terms of its technique, but the scope of its emotions and questions is full of uncommonly meaningful value.
It’s hard to predict what kind of future Birbiglia may end up having in the world of film. The obvious first question is whether or not his skill as a writer extends beyond considering his own individual past. But for the moment, he’s given us a memorable character with credible struggles that are worth investing in. The image of Birbiglia smiling at the sight of an empty motel room is one that’s swelling with human complications, and Sleepwalk with Me never lets up from there.
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