Early in the film, after a particularly painful set of jokes, stand-up comedian Matt Pandamiglio, actor/director/writer Mike Birbiglia’s barely fictionalized alter-ego, asks his friends and girlfriend if they had been watching. One of them replies, “No, honey, we heard those jokes in college. They’re funny!” Though Sleepwalk With Me is comedian Mike Birbiglia’s first directorial and writing foray into the world of feature films, you’d be forgiven if his material sounds a little familiar. Maybe, like me, you heard the “jackal” story for the first time on the Moth podcast or NPR’s “This American Life,” or you listened to Birbiglia’s best-selling album “Sleepwalk With Me Live” or, quite possibly, you read his best-selling book “Sleepwalk With Me and Other Painfully True Stories.”
So, yes, this is at least the third medium Mike Birbiglia has used to recount the same year or so of his life. This was a period of time where he was going through intense personal and professional stress and that stress manifested itself as REM sleep behavior disorder (aka he sleep walks). And, yeah, I already know this story quite well, but I didn’t mind hearing it again for three reasons. Firstly, Mike Birbiglia is a helluva storyteller and wisely frames the action of the movie with his own voice-over narrative. This allows for his trademark wry and drawling delivery and for Matt to occasionally remind us that “you’re on my side.” Secondly, there’s something markedly different in seeing the ill-effects of Birbiglia’s (or, excuse me, Pandamiglio’s) nighttime rambles. What’s merely funny, if slightly f*cked up, in anecdote form becomes downright harrowing when you can actually see the blood and shattered glass. The visuals alone make Sleepwalk With Me, the movie, a much much darker story. And, finally, yeah I heard these jokes in college. But they’re funny.
Bibiglia co-wrote and directed this film with Seth Barrish, his brother Joe Birbiglia and Ira Glass (who also has a fun cameo as a wedding photographer). And what the film lacks in polish from these relative newcomers to the medium, it makes up for in realism and natural performances. Lauren Ambrose shines the brightest as Matt’s sympathetic and put-upon girlfriend, Abby. A highlight of the film is a quick, sweet duet she shares with Loudon Wainwright and his ukulele. The way Ambrose registers hurt and quickly chases it away with a wide smile is both familiar and heart-breaking. Abby is written as such a saintly character, in fact, that I have to wonder if Birbiglia’s guilt over what he put her real-life counterpart through influenced his writing process. On the flip side, Matt’s parents are written as rather one dimensional stereotypes. His uptight father (James Rebhorn) spouts cliches like “get a reality check” and his flighty mother (the always marvelous Carol Kane) ties to soothe all the ruffled feathers. The film is peppered throughout with fun guest appearances from actors sure to appeal to the NPR-listenin’ “Daily Show”-watchin’, soy latte-chuggin’ set including Kristen Schaal, Wyatt Cenac, John Lutz, David Wain and Marc Maron.
But at the center of it all is this oddly endearing performance from Birbiglia who, like Louis CK and Woody Allen before him, manages to show you his worst side and somehow hold on to your sympathy. Matt Pandamiglio is an infuriating man-child. Someone who won’t take care of himself, can’t be honest with his partner and refuses to confront the way in which this self-neglect is extremely destructive. But there’s something in Birbiglia’s slightly doughy face and, more importantly, the benefit of his own hindsight that consistently wins us over. And for all the heavy themes and wounded characters, Sleepwalk With Me is, at its core, pretty f*cking hilarious. Especially if you’ve never heard the jackal story before.