Directed By: Mike Birbiglia, Seth Barrish
Written By: Mike Birbiglia, Ira Glass
Starring: Mike Birbiglia, Lauren Ambrose, James Rebhorn
Honesty is the best policy. A statement many of us hear and perhaps even believe. We all realize we live in a rather dishonest world, and yet we do nothing about it. A world where McDonalds can proudly put a picture of the ‘Big Mac’ on their walls that looks nothing like the meat-like substance we have before us. We sheepishly eat it anyways as Ronald McDonald looks down upon us with his judging eyes. We are lied to on a daily basis and we just accept it as a normality. So when something comes along that feels true and honest it deserves to be celebrated. Such is the case with Mike Birbiglia’s Sleepwalk with Me. This film marks both the directing and acting debut for Birbigilia, and if it is any indication of his talents I can’t wait to see what he has in store for the future.
The story follows Birbiglia’s early life as a standup comic. Well, as Birbigilia puts it, not so much a comic more so a bartender that bartends where comedy happens. The main crux of the film however is Birbigilia’s relationship with his then girlfriend Abby played by Laruen Ambrose. Though this story is based on true life it’s not 100% factual. Birbigilia clues you into this by how he slightly changes everyone’s name. For example his characters name is Matt Pandamiglio, a purposely ridiculous word play on his own name. It’s a simple reference point to let us know things are slightly skewed from reality. What is true and what is real is not all that important, because it never allows the ‘based of a true story’ mantra as an excuse to be ridiculous.
Birbigilia was smart in surrounding himself with quality acting talent. Their names may not be household but they provide Birbigilia with a lot of assistances. Actors like James Rebhorn and Carol Kane, who play his parents, were fantastic as the nagging couple who never quite gets it. Understandably Birbigilia is not at their level acting wise, but when they are all together he tends to play the wallflower role being dragged along unwillingly from point to point. More importantly his relationship with Laurent Ambrose felt legitimate and real. Even if I didn’t know it was based on his real life I would assume in the way it avoids so many clichés’. Their relationship is troubled but it’s not a train wreck. They both feel lost and comfortable with their lives. Part of them wants something different, and part of them doesn’t want to let go of what they have. You can see what brought them together and what is tearing them apart. It’s like that accident everyone can see coming except for the two people who about to hit each other. One driver is engrossed in their ‘Sup with U’ text message and the other is nodding off after a late night of ‘World of Warcraft’ questing and porn ‘research’ so neither can see the inevitable disaster they are about to cause. Pandamiglio’s younger sister adds some fuel to the fire when she announces she is getting married. This causes Matt and Abby to reevaluate where their eight year relationship is heading. Marriage was never really a goal, but perhaps it should be.
All this uncertainty begins to manifest in Pandamiglio’s life in a unique way. He begins sleepwalkin and this is not just your normal type of sleepwalking. He actually acts out his dreams. It’s a sleeping disorder that Birbigilia has in real life, and one that you can imagine is quite dangerous. The sleepwalking sequences were some of the funniest parts of the film. I do feel like more could have been done with that opportunity, but considering the limited resources it’s hard not to admire what they did accomplish. Even with the dangerous nature of acting out your dreams he refuses to see the doctor. Like Birbigilia says, “I could go to the doctor or I could get dinner. I went with dinner.” It was moments like that where I bought in. There is always this attempt to over analyze what we do and why we do it. This was willing to admit that sometimes we just don’t know.
As they attempt to figure things out Pandamiglio finally starts to see some success at being a comic. Much of that was due to the words of wisdom given to him by comic veteran Marc Mulheren played by actual comic veteran and podcast legend Marc Maron. Being a fan of standup comedy I loved the moments where Pandamiglio finds his voice as a comic. His success started when he was willing to be personal on stage, and that mindset clearly carried over to this film. The moments with the other comics are also where Birbigilia was finding his own as an actor. He felt completely natural amongst people who were obviously his real life friends. I hope in the future Birbigilia can bring that acting talent into scenes with actual actors as well.
While I enjoyed watching Pandamiglio become a comic it caused the film to feel like two separate movies. I could see how his new found success and life on the road could cause his relationship to Abby to become more distant it just could have done more to keep those stories more connected, causing their progression to feel simultaneous. When the movie ended at its unavoidable conclusion it was rather abrupt. To be fair that may have be purposeful as moments in life are often abrupt. We are given so many manufactured stories we often forget life doesn’t tie up nicely. Thankfully nothing about Sleepwalk with Me was manufactured. It nailed those small moments like the apprehension of having someone join in on a family photo, or the ridiculous things we say in an attempt to save a relationship. A relationship we may have wanted to end in the first place. There was never a villain or a hero. Just two people trying to work things out in their relationship and life. Birbigilia provides a lot of wisdom in his earnestness. His willingness to dissect his own life allows us to examine our own.