In 2008, self-deprecating standup Mike Birbiglia transformed his comedy routine into a successful monologue titled “Sleepwalk With Me.” Now, he upgrades the material once again, fashioning an endearing indie feature about the day-to-day indecisions and nocturnal perambulations of a commitment-phobic New Yorker. Birbiglia plays Matt Pandamiglio, eight years into a relationship with sexy, supportive and seemingly perfect Abby (Lauren Ambrose), but too consumed with his career to tie the knot. Appealing enough to launch Birbiglia in a big way, this warm, perceptive debut should win over auds, but loses some of the specificity that made his one-man show so personal.
To make it as a comic in New York City, you’ve gotta be edgy. Matt is anything but. “Soft” might be a better way to describe his slightly pudgy appearance and completely unassertive personality. While Abby holds down a grown-up job, Matt works as a bartender at a Gotham comedy club, praying for opportunities to go onstage.
Matt’s parents (Carol Kane and James Rebhorn, just the right mix of encouraging and annoying) want what’s best for their son. They’ve been married 40 years and figure a nice wedding would do him good. As Matt puts it, however, not once has he looked at his parents’ relationship, nor that of any long-married couple, and thought, “I need to get me some of that” — which is starting to be a problem for altar-bound Abby, who TiVos “Marriage Tales” and coos over their friends’ newborn babies.
For Matt, the resulting anxiety manifests itself in vivid dreams of being chased by jackals or seduced by other women. At first, he’s reluctant to accept that he suffers from REM sleep behavior disorder, but as the stress builds, the risk of harming himself or others builds — until the night he hurls himself from a second-story hotel window.
When not focusing on awkward moments with Abby or his parents, the film recaps the first steps of Matt’s career, as he goes up and bombs in front of bored audiences, lands his first agent (hilarious voice-casting stalwart Sondra James), accepts depressing gigs at far-flung dumps and so on, until the light bulb goes off. By joking about what’s really on his mind — namely, his anxiety about marriage — Matt has no shortage of genuinely amusing observations to share. The only problem is that every joke is a betrayal of Abby, who’s always been his fiercest champion. Plus, Matt finds that opening up about his feelings in front of complete strangers brings him closer to the revelation that maybe he and Abby should break up.
Like anyone who stands behind a microphone for a living, Birbiglia has a way with words, and “Sleepwalk With Me” is packed with laugh-out-loud one-liners (e.g. “Having sex for the first time is like eating pizza-flavored ice cream”). Birbiglia narrates in character while driving around town running errands. In a typically self-aware gesture, he opens the film by asking audiences to silence their cell phones, and later prefaces one of his most unforgivable betrayals by saying, “I want to remind you that you’re on my side.”
The nice surprise of this screen adaptation (which Birbiglia accomplished with the help of “This American Life’s” Ira Glass, his brother Joe Birbiglia and Seth Barrish, director of the original stage production) is that his humor comes across just as strongly in visual terms, with funny observations layered into casting, performance and every aspect of the production. With lots of minor roles to go around, Birbiglia enlists some terrific up-and-coming standups (among them Kristen Schaal, Wyatt Cenac and Hannibal Burress) and even an old pro (Marc Maron) to raise the game across the board. He also recruits sleep disorder specialist William C. Dement for an amusing cameo, narrating his own audiobook while Matt falls asleep at the wheel.
Lensing, music and other below-the-line contributions are polished enough that this modestly budgeted endeavor, which was scaled back from a more ambitious production so Birbiglia could direct himself, looks and sounds better than some studio comedies.