Jonathan Kim is an independent film critic who writes and produces film reviews for Uprising and other outlets. He is a former co-producer at Brave New Films.
Sleepwalk with Me
Some of you may know that I’ve been doing stand up comedy for a few years as an open mic-er. During that time, I’ve learned a lot about the amazing people who are aspiring and succeeding in doing comedy for a living, and one of the best voices out there belongs to Mike Birbiglia, who started as a straight stand up but has made the unique transition to doing very personal, true, but still hilarious one-man shows, as well as several appearances on NPR’s ‘This American Life’. His first and most well-known show was ‘Sleepwalk With Me’, which he performed off Broadway, and has now been turned into a film of the same name starring and directed by Birbigs himself.
The film is a chronicle of Birbiglia’s early years as a stand-up comic, though his character goes by the name Matt Pandamiglio, as well as his relationship with Abby, his first serious girlfriend who he met in college and played by Lauren Ambrose. As Matt attempts to be a full-time comic, crisscrossing the east coast doing crappy, low-paying gigs with weak material, Matt starts feeling serious pressure to get married, which coincides with the troubling discovery that Matt has an unusual sleep disorder that causes him to physically act out his dreams in ways that are harmful to himself and possibly others. But as Matt struggles to make sense of his disorder as well as his increasing reservations about marrying Abby, his jokes and stories became more personal, revealing, funny, and closer to his true self, a process known as “finding your voice”, which many comics feel takes a decade or more to accomplish.
As a big fan of the original live show, it was sometimes pretty jarring watching the movie the first time, since all I saw were the differences. The funny parts come much more quickly in the live show, which also focuses more on his relationship with his dad, a doctor who always kept his personal feelings hidden and encouraged his kids to do the same.
But before I wrote this review, I watched ‘Sleepwalk With Me’ a second time, and I’m really glad I did. Because the second time, I was able to just watch the movie for what it is, not the thing it isn’t. And ‘Sleepwalk With Me’ is a really wonderful, poignant, funny, and very original film from a unique and honest voice that shows its main character not as a hero, victim, or saint, but as a real person who makes mistakes, and sometimes big, hurtful, avoidable ones. And while man-boy characters have become common in comedy, Matt isn’t juvenile. He’s a guy trying to figure out his life while avoiding important issues he really needs to deal with. And I think all of us have been there.
The most welcome addition in the movie is that we finally get to see Abby and the fantastic job Ambrose does of portraying her as a wonderful, sympathetic person who isn’t pushy or nagging, but actually deserves everything she’s asking for, even if her boyfriend isn’t yet at the stage where he can give it to her, which leads to some difficult, truly heartbreaking moments, which are made even more so when you remember that this stuff actually happened to Birbiglia in real life and we’re watching him reenact some of his lowest moments.
If I had to choose just one, I’d probably go with the live show. But thankfully, you don’t have to choose — I’d recommend seeing the movie, then heading over to iTunes or Spotify to listen to the original, since I think they can both be enjoyed on their own merits. ‘Sleepwalk With Me’ is a personal, intimate story of a consciously flawed man attempting to be an adult, both professionally and emotionally, and trying to take responsibility for himself, his career, his relationships, and his health before he’s ready for it. And it’s a real treat to see Birbiglia once again taking stand up comedy into another exciting realm.
‘Sleepwalk With Me’ is rated PG-13 and opens today across California.