Sleepwalk With Me is the sort of meta Indie that earns its right to be meta. Right off the bat, the main character, a moon-faced beady-eyed thirty-something named Matt, looks into the camera and reminds everyone in the audience to turn off their cell phones. It’s a surprising moment that at first seems gimmicky, like something the Muppets might do to purposefully break the cinematic illusion for the sake of cheeky irreverence. But once we remember that Matt is played by the film’s writer/director (Mike Birbiglia), and that everything he’s about to tell us actually occurred in his life, the rest of the movie’s fourth-wall shattering self-knowingness feels less like a cynical ploy, and more like a heartfelt confession.
The movie is based on the autobiographical stand-up routine of the director. It originally aired as a comedy special on the NPR series This American Life. Adapted to the screen by the man himself, the story tells of Matt’s journey from an unfulfilled barkeep to a successful comedian, which, in the process, afflicted his relationship with Abby (Lauren Ambrose), the girlfriend of eight years that desperately wanted to tie the knot, even if she was too agreeable to admit it outright. The movie traces how Matt begins using elements from his strained love life to flesh out his meager routine, which not only gets the crowd guffawing, but it allows us to see how his comedy was a therapeutic expression of all the difficult aspects of his life.
When he professes to his barfly listeners, “I only want to get married after I’m convinced that nothing good will ever happen to me again,” the room howls, but he actually means it. The film works best as a study of relationships, critically examining how couples often stay together even after they’ve fallen out of love, based on some pragmatic commitment, or simply out of fear. Matt looks at his parents—played brilliantly as opposites by character actors James Rebhorn and Carol Kane—and sees a couple that lasted forty long years for all the wrong reasons. As written with such an observational deftness, the movie has similarities to TV’s Seinfeld. Like how that creator/comedian’s wry critiques of everyday life informed his show, Mike Birbiglia’s frank romantic quandaries compelled his comedy, and vice versa.
As the girlfriend he strings along, Ambrose (TV’s Six Feet Under) is beautiful and emotive—she has a great actress’s wordless command of emotion that doesn’t require a juicy line of dialogue to link every beat to. Abby—who is a touch underwritten, I have to say—has an unspoken sadness that Ambrose nails. Playing the dual roles of star and director, Birbiglia makes for a sympathetic performer, if not a particularly weighty one. Behind the camera, he shows traces of invention: the director shoots the video-confessions that frame the story with close-ups from his passenger seat, as he drives around running mundane errands; there’s one slinky-cool long-take through a La Quinta Hotel; and a few surrealist dream sequences.
Apropos to the title, those dreams become a major plot development with Matt’s increasingly vivid and dangerous sleepwalking episodes. Bloated by this, the story starts to lose its forthright narrative trajectory, growing increasingly uneven, as this point never seamlessly blends into the rest of the movie. But it was a significant obstacle in Mike Birbiglia’s pre-fame life, it provided a rich well for his on-stage creativity, and it helped define the man and artist he would eventually become. How could he not include it? Since Sleepwalk With Me is simply one man’s naked acknowledgment of his worst flaws and poorest choices, I can’t fault the guy for trying so hard to get that, his own life-story, just right.