In association with WBEZ Chicago, it's this American life: Mike Birbiglia's. The comedian brings his best-known story to the big screen in Sleepwalk with Me, an indie comedy-drama co-written and co-produced by This American Life host Ira Glass.
That Birbiglia has already told this story before—on This American Life, in his one-man off-Broadway show, and a best-selling non-fiction book—is part of the problem. Film demonstrably isn't the best medium for this story (at least as directed by Birbiglia and written by Birbiglia, his brother Joe, Seth Barrish, and Glass), and the preferable versions, as verbalized by Birbiglia the raconteur, have been on the market for some time.
Nevertheless, Sleepwalk with Me gets by on its humble charms as it tells the story of aspiring stand-up comic Matt Pandamiglio (Birbiglia, natch) and his struggles with commitment and REM behavior disorder. Matt has somehow sustained a relationship of eight years with girlfriend Abby (Lauren Ambrose), but he's pushing his luck by dodging the question he ought to be popping, and his late-breaking upward mobility as a comic increasingly keeps the couple apart.
There's also that little matter of the sleep disorder, which understandably distresses Abby as Matt wanders about the bedroom in the wee hours, pantomiming his dreams and doing himself physical harm. A classic avoider, Matt consistently blows off a sleep study just as he postpones taking his relationship to the next level. In a series of narrative asides, Matt confesses, with hindsight, his failings, shaking his head at his past self and offering, "To be a comedian, you have to be a little bit delusional."
Matt's hapless clambering in the comedy world, a painful ascent that's realistically slow, is the film's most convincingly portrayed aspect and presents the most intriguing dilemma. As a veteran comic (Marc Maron) teaches Matt, if he's to have a breakthrough, he's going to have to stop mere shucking and jiving and actually start telling some hard truths about his life: that's where the good material lives.
But once Matt goes there, he has an act he doesn't feel comfortable letting Abby hear: it's okay for audiences to laugh at his existential horrors, but there's only so much truth he's willing to admit to his girlfriend. That Matt so consistently blocks Abby out highlights another of the film's issues: by resolutely sticking to Matt's point-of-view, Abby comes off as something of a punching bag. Though her puzzling behavior does get a funny-sad payoff of sorts, we still exit the story wishing we were given a chance to know her more fully. At the bottom line, Birbiglia's film version of Sleepwalk with Me may be a bit fitful and tentative, but the story remains resonant, with its hidden-in-plain-sight metaphor of drifting unconsciously through life.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]