Sundance 2012: Mike Birbiglia's 'Sleepwalk with Me' is a True Delight
by Ethan Anderton
January 25, 2012
Having stand-up comedians bring their act to television or the big screen always results in a mixed bag of quality. Television has the most failure, but often when a comedian brings their brand of comedy to film as well, it's a difficult transition. However, as a fan of comedian Mike Birbiglia (you can watch one of his stand-up specials on Netflix Instant), I was anxious to see how his directorial debut and first leading role in Sleepwalk with Me turned out. Thankfully, the comedian has made an adorable film about a struggling comedian with uncertain romance and a humorous sleeping disorder, all crafted from his personal stories.
With a flare reminiscent of "Seinfeld," a first-person voiceover and fourth-wall-breaking conversations with the audience, Mike Birbiglia tells his own story (based on his popular book and comedy album of the same name) under the not so disguising character of Matt Pandamiglio who just happens to be a struggling comedian. His romance with Abby (Lauren Ambrose of "Six Feet Under") is satisfying, but Matt is unsure about their future together, especially as far as dealing with marriage. But perhaps the most alarming issue is that Matt has dangerous fits of sleepwalking that almost always seem to end up with him getting comically injured. The story is grounded, but with a whimsical touch thanks to the silliness of Pandamiglio's strange sleepwalking dreams.
Right from the beginning, Birbiglia creates a bond with his audience as he talks to the them, asking viewers to turn off their cell phones as he tells his story (it's also important to remember, we're on his side) with fantastic use of his stand-up material tossed in throughout. Birbiglia's story is made all the more engaging thanks to a supporting cast that includes Ambrose, James Rebhorn and Carol Kane as Matt's parents, and a whole slew of comedian cameos including Wyatt Cenac, Eugene Mirman, David Wain, and most importantly Marc Maron under the clever guise of Marc Moharon.
With the same easy-to-relate personality of Ferris Bueller and the storytelling elements of High Fidelity, watching Sleepwalk with Me, I only found myself with the complaint that the film was only 90 minutes long, when I easily could've watched Birbiglia carry on for at least another 15 minutes. It only helps that "This American Life" host Ira Glass produced the film, making it feel like a homegrown segment that could easily be featured on the radio program. Birbiglia not only proves himself as a director, but also a writer (he actually majored in screenwriting in college) as he seamlessly blends his stand-up act into the film's story.
Mike Birbiglia is beyond fantastic playing a slightly fictionalized version of himself, and Sleepwalk with Me is truly a surprise gem of the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. Rarely does a comedian succeed so easily with his first venture into filmmaking, but somehow Birbiglia has taken his trademark awkward stories and delivered a delightful, hilarious story. Perhaps what's most impressive is how clean Birbiglia's comedy is in comparison to most of the great comedies that hit the big screen full of vulgarities and crass humor (not that there's anything wrong with those films at all). Birbiglia is on the verge of a huge career boost in the filmmaking world and if this film is any indicator, there are many great things to come from the comedian.
Ethan's Sundance Rating: 8.5 out of 10