REM behavior disorder has been very mean to Mike Birbiglia. This violent form of sleepwalking, in which the sufferer acts out his dreams, once compelled Birbiglia to climb a chest of drawers and leap from it. Another night, at a La Quinta hotel in Walla Walla, Wash., the sleeping Birbiglia jumped through the closed window of his second-story room — a caper that required 33 stitches to remove shards of glass from his leg. On physician’s orders, he now goes to bed encased in a sleeping bag. For a while he wore mittens to keep him from unzipping the bag.
But because Birbiglia is a professional comedian, the disorder has also been very good to him; it gave him unique subject from which to mine funny-peculiar laughs. In a way, a weird way, it gave him a career. Beginning as an element of his standup act, Sleepwalk With Me blossomed into a one-man off-Broadway play, a comedy album, a best-selling book, a TV special and one of the most popular segments on the NPR series This American Life. Now, with the show’s host Ira Glass signed on as producer and cowriter, and Birbiglia assuming the jobs of star and director, Sleepwalk With Me has become a movie of modest but solid virtues. The musical, sitcom and board-game versions will have to wait.
Personal narrative, though usually in chunks of 10-15 mins., is at the heart of This American Life. Storytellers who found their voice and their careers on the show include Sarah Vowell, David Sedaris, John Hodgman and the recently late David Rakoff — not to forget Mike Daisey, the monologist whose account of factory conditions in China turned out to be partly made up. (Glass’s “Retraction” episode was the most-downloaded in This American Life’s history. Another weird career move.) Given that indie films are all about storytelling, often in a wry tone, it’s almost surprising that the show had spawned only two films, Unaccompanied Minors and The Informant!, before Sleepwalk With Me.
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Not wanting to ignore their chance to establish themselves as moviemakers, Birbiglia and Glass have been flacking Sleepwalk on virtually every NPR program: Fresh Air, Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me, The Leonard Lopate Show, Marketplace, Car Talk — anyway, three of those five. Hollywood biggie Josh Whedon, writer-director of The Avengers, has also promoted the movie, in a sidewise way, on a two-minute YouTube editorial. “We shouldn’t be watching these little tiny films that people really care about and work for years on,” Whedon says, tongue firmly in straight-faced cheek. “We should be nurturing corporate spectacle like good Americans.” (Glass and Birbiglia naturally made an answer video.) If the 160,000 or so who have viewed the Whedon screed buy tickets to Sleepwalk this weekend, the movie will earn nearly $2 million and qualify, in indie terms, as a breakout hit to match Birbiglia’s success in all those other media.
That would be a dream come true for the comic, who has eyes on moving from comedy clubs to a full-blown movie career as Woody Allen once did. You know: Annie Hall, the semiautobiographical, Oscar-winning movie about a standup comedian named Alvy Singer (Allen) and his would-be songstress girlfriend (real-life romantic partner Diane Keaton, whose birth name is Diane Hall). In Sleepwalk, Matt Pandamiglio, Birbiglia’s stand-in avatar for his standup self, is a similarly shlumpfy fellow with a songstress girlfriend, Abby (Lauren Ambrose). Codirected by Seth Barrish, who staged the off-Broadway incarnation, the movie takes about an hour to concentrate on sleep disorder. Most of the rest concerns Matt’s early days in the comedy business and his long relationship with Abby. Also pizza — not sure why; maybe because Matt, like Mike, is of Italian heritage.
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Eight years earlier, Matt had charmed Abby with his opening pick-up line: “You wanna go to church some time?” Though she’s loving, attractive, supportive and, frankly, out of his league, Matt has trouble committing to her; the closest he comes to a proposal is, “I mean, you don’t want to get married, right?” Abby’s function in Matt’s life, like Annie’s in Alvy’s, is to laugh at his jokes and to be prodded to exasperation by her beau’s arrested emotional development. Matt also has parents (James Rebhorn and Carol Kane) out of the Comedy Cliché Warehouse — Mother: “Why are you yelling?” Father: “Why are you yelling?” — and a sister (Cristin Milioti) who suggests that Matt takes “a breather” from his static affair. Pretty clearly, he’s sleepwalking through life
With kooky parents and a passive-depressive outlook — even his car’s GPS system speaks as if it’s having a lifelong bad day — Matt might seem to be a natural for standup comedy. His problem: he’s not that funny. Hitting the road and developing his own material, he finds that he gets laughs making jokes about his relationship. That sets up a natural second-act climax: that Abby will hear his sour truth, in comedy form, and be forced to confront the dead-end that she and Matt may have reached. Instead, the movie finally goes sleepwalking — first mildly, when a roommate on the road finds Matt flailing, clothed, in the shower. “You know you’re not supposed to actually act ’em out,” the guy says about dreams. “They’re, like, movies. You just sorta watch ’em.”
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Birbiglia’s temperament, pessimistic but not whining, massages the viewer’s attention without assaulting it. Lacking bitterness or anger, he’s more a lost soul who happens to be surrounded by people as fascinated with his commitment problem as he is worn down by it. His movie, like his screen character, can’t disappoint audiences because he hasn’t set them up to expect much. Telling the film’s story while driving a car, he brings spectators along for a ride they neither can nor need to escape. For all the melodrama of his defenestration in the Walla Walla hotel room, and the potentially wrenching relationship at the movie’s core, Sleepwalk is oddly soothing, like a cup of camomile tea before bedtime.
(READ: Richard Zoglin’s review of another Mike Birbiglia one-man show)
Featuring guest performances by comedians Marc Maron, Kristen Schaal, David Wain, Wyatt Cenac, Jesse Klein and Alex Karpovsky, the movie is pretty acute as a starter course in standup. One way, to put it baldly, is by telling stories that embarrass the people you love. (Curiously, none of the NPR interviewers asked Birbiglia whether his movie’s romance is based on fact, or if the real-life Abby has seen the film.) The other way is by contracting an illness and talking about it.
Rakoff, who two weeks ago died of cancer at 47, did some of the latter. Birbiglia, having survived his dopamine deficiency and turned it into a minor multimedia industry, is touring with his latest one-man show, My Boyfriend’s Girlfriend. No life-threatening disease this time, just familiar joys and heartaches transmuted into sharp humor. This one’s got to be a sitcom.