Featuring: Mike Birbiglia, Lauren Ambrose
Director: Mike Birbiglia, Seth Barrish
Screenplay: Mike Birbiglia, Ira Glass, Joe Birbiglia, Seth Barrish
Australian release date: Currently showing
Reviewer: Karen (one-word verdict: under-performing)
Matt Pandamiglio (Mike Birbiglia) is an aspiring standup comedian who is in a long-term relationship with Abby (Lauren Ambrose). When his sister marries, he succumbs to family pressure and becomes engaged to Abby, but his fear that he is making a mistake in marrying and the strain of a punishing touring schedule exacerbate his sleep disorder, and he begins to sleepwalk, exposing himself to danger. Eventually he gets some treatment, and breaks off his engagement.
If you are familiar with the radio show This American Life, you will feel instantly comfortable with Sleepwalk With Me, as co-writer and director Mike Birbiglia follows its format and speaks directly to the audience about his own life. In fact his original segment on the radio show, based on his comedy monologue, was the seed for the script of this film (co-written with TAL producer and host Ira Glass).
So, Birbiglia’s a successful comic; This American Life is a much loved program with a proven story-telling formula; throw in Ira Glass to co-write (with Joe Birbiglia and Seth Barrish) and you should be able to make a funny, even fascinating film. That’s what I thought, anyway.
But although Sleepwalk With Me does have its moments, they are unfortunately separated by long periods of dead screen time, and it ultimately fails to enhance the facts of the tale, which are rather slight (see story summary above) for an 81-minute feature.
There are some funny moments, and some nicely observed ones. Matt’s transition from deer-in-the-headlights timid talker at the beginning, to confident slagger-off of cultural conventions as he increasingly mines his own life for material is funny/uncomfortable to watch. There’s a hilarious lip-synching competition, and some mildly amusing jokes, but I was never really tickled.
That’s disappointing in a film about (and by) a comedian who has supposedly become a success; worse, though, there is little rich insight or nuanced investigation into the comic topic, which is, let’s face it, the awfulness of marriage. Even the interesting psychological aspect of the sleepwalking response to stress is like an addendum to the main event of a man-child who doesn’t want to assume conventional adult responsibilities – although it edges out the mature Mike’s reflections in the grand finale, which focus on the medical and practical treatments for his disorder.
Production values, however, are high, with lovely lighting and footage that’s been cut for beauty rather than pace; and mention must be made of a cameo by Loudon Wainwright III, playing the ukulele accompaniment to Abby’s sassy singing at her and Matt’s engagement party.
The story-telling itself is charming (although Matt does have to remind us at one stage that we are “on his side”), but commits one of my all-time most-hated cinematic offences against verisimilitude: the extended voice-to-camera while driving. (It also commits another one, unrelated to the narrative mode: the known-to-be-impossible drool-free mid-toothbrushing speech.) Matt does a lot of simultaneous driving and narrating.
But it’s the narration that’s also the problem here. Sleepwalk With Me has not been able to transcend its origins in the comic monologue style. A story told on radio proceeds at speaking pace, enhanced with musical and sound-effect punctuation. It’s spare, but rich. The standup comedian has his or her physical presence for added visual and comic effect. Film is different: its richness comprises many strands, and much detail can be woven into its fabric. I don’t think Birbiglia has accomplished this. His film is an illustrated spoken-word story, and while it retains the intimate, conversational feel of a good yarn, it doesn’t really succeed as a film.
One of Matt Pandamiglio’s terrifying early-career moments has him facing a 30-minute standup gig with only 11 minutes of material. Sleepwalk With Me has maybe 30 minutes. I reckon a slick screenwriter could conceivably have eased it into something like Love Actually as one of the ensemble stories, and it would have benefited from the compression.
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