Aug 27, 2012

Film Review: Sleepwalk With Me

"Abby, there's a Jackal in the room!"
There’s an odd phenomenon that occurs at movie theaters, usually during a movie’s opening week. At the end of the movie, apropos of nothing, people start clapping. For whom, I ask, for whom? Is it for the audience themselves, for enjoying a communal activity? Is it a congratulations to the projectionist? It always seems odd, unnecessary, and a little pompous. Well, finally, at the end of a screening of comedian Mike Birbiglia’s new film, Sleepwalk with Me, appleause actually made sense. Because Mike Birbiglia was in the
theater along with co-writer and producer Ira Glass, he of This American Life fame.  They were there to give an exclusive talk-back to the people who had braved the summer heat to see their new movie. And so we applauded, because it was polite and also because the film was kind of awesome.

The story of Sleepwalk with Me is fairly simple and fairly familiar. It’s a story of Birbiglia’s real life. Although, instead of playing himself, Mike Birbigiglia, a stand-up comedian whose relationship stress has manifested in extremely dangerous sleepwalking, he’s playing Matt Pandamiglio, a struggling stand-up comedian whose relationship stress has started to manifest in extremely dangerous sleepwalking. Though he doesn’t know it yet, he has REM Sleep Behavior Disorder, which basically means that the part of the brain that is supposed to keep dreams in the subconscious and not become action isn’t exactly turned on, or something. So when he runs in his dreams, he runs in his real life, when he climbs in his dreams, he climbs in real life, etc. You get the idea. With people constantly pressuring him into making his long-term girlfriend (the delightful Lauren Ambrose) into something more, his sleepwalking becomes more pronounced, and everything spirals out of control. All that, and he has his job to think about. 

My Promotional Poster
Mike Birbiglia has been telling this story through different media and in different iterations for years. I’m not sure where I first heard the story, but I definitely listened to it on This American Life, and I’ve seen him perform the story at least twice. Then, a year or so ago, he released a book, Sleepwalk with Me: and Other Painfully True Stories, which basically covers the same material, and I read that. As the person sitting next to me in the theater mentioned, this movie would have a whole lot more bite if we didn’t know it by heart already. If any comedian can get away with repeating material for years on end, though, it’s Birbiglia, whose style of story-and-joke-telling always seems unrehearsed (in a good way). Even after all these years, his delivery is always different enough to not seem canned. In a world where comedy sets go up on YouTube and become instantly stale, where Louis C.K. writes a new full set of comedy every year and throws away all his old material, and where people heckle a comedian for working new material out on stage, Birbiglia has been able to tell the same story for years and remain relatively unscathed. He’s loose; he’s in it; he’s crafting the sentences as he goes along. He's like the bumbling Muhammad Ali of comedy.

Lauren Ambrose, Killing It At Acting
In this film, more so than in any version I’ve seen or read or heard, the struggles of him and his girlfriend take center stage, with the sleepwalking a symptom of the relationship but not the main story. The glue that holds the film together is the constant crumbling and rebuilding of the relationship with Pandamiglio (again, that’s Birbiglia’s name in the film) and his girlfriend, Abby. Birbiglia and Ambrose have the daunting task of making a relationship seem comfortable and safe but also stagnant and a little bitter. Birbiglia is really at home in front of the camera, and Ambrose, quite honestly, is amazing. I’ve been in love with her since she played Denise Fleming in Can’t Hardly Wait and had the most amazing One-Night Relationship Intensive with Seth Green.  Her large and very wet eyes are easily used to convey joy and sadness, and it’s clear that one comment could move her from one to the other. Her emotional vulnerability actually reminds me of the lead actress in the musical Once, who coincidentally is also in this movie as Matt’s sister Janet (Cristin Milioti). Both use slight expressions or eye movements to convey multitudes; Ambrose has such an great ability to make an audience feel emotions. She’s heartbreaking, funny, and witty, and I am basically going to throw a Lauren Ambrose parade complete with really dour Six Feet Under floats.

 I should also mention at this point how funny the movie is. It’s not packed with yucks and guffaws, but it has a very naturalistic humor, a very Birbiglian humor. It’s like a very structured bowl of Alphabet Soup. With such a structured film as he’s completed with Sleepwalk With Me, Birbiglia might have to officially retire the material. Where does he go after he makes a film as delicately sweet and depressing as this one, with so much humor and heart.  And how will he ever get better co-stars than James Rebhorn, Carol Kane, and Marc Maron? What could be next? They will literally have to invent a new medium in order for him to keep performing this show – maybe it could be some sort of sorrowful Moon Dance Recital?

Even with a fairly unique framing device and a solid story, the film meanders a bit when it approaches the final act, as movies based on real events tend to do. Unlike fictional life, sometimes things don’t naturally reach a crescendo or climax at the same time in the real world. And it’s easy to feel a bit thrown around by the film in the last thirty minutes. All three of the main storylines (Matt’s career, Matt’s relationship, Matt’s sleepwalking) revolve around one character, Matt, and that causes the film to feel claustrophobic and the life resolutions a little uneven. The audience isn’t given enough time to relish in Matt’s artistic strides when a relationship fumble is right there after, and vice versa. None of the good moments have time to breathe, and none of the bad moments have time to fester.

This is all to say that the movie is still really good, and the fact that the three stories eventually come together at the end (with some handy narration) is extremely admirable. When you have Ira Glass on your writing team (and in the theater), you better be able to end on solid footing.

Rating: 3 out of 4 bedroom jackals, or 2 out of 2 awkward rounds of clapping.

Post Script: My judgment for this film may be a little clouded by the fact that it felt intensely personal, due in part to its setting. Most of the film takes place in and around Park Slope, Brooklyn, which is where I currently live, and many of the scenes occur in Union Hall, which is my favorite and most frequented bar. However, maybe I'm not the only one who feels that way. There's a saying that the more personal something is, the more universal it can feel. Mike Birbiglia has definitely crafted a very personal movie that attains a universal appeal.
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...