About midway through Sleepwalk with Me, the autobiographical indie by comedian Mike Birbiglia, his character complains to a fellow comic that an event booker has given him too large a time slot to fill: "She wants me to do a half-hour, and I only have, like, ten minutes of material."
Though it pains me to say it, I think the same is largely true of the movie itself. I wanted to like Sleepwalk with Me. For that matter, I did like it—just not nearly as much as I would've liked to have liked it. I couldn't help but feel that there was a slackness to the proceedings, as if 45 minutes of material had been stretched thin to a just-barely-feature-film-worthy 80 minutes.
The movie has its roots in a one-man show Birbiglia performed off-Broadway, which was excerpted—like many of his routines—on WBEZ radio's This American Life, and also appeared in Birbiglia's book, Sleepwalk with Me & Other Painfully True Tales. The movie is written and directed by Birbiglia, who also stars as barely pseudonymous stand-in "Matt Pandamiglio" (yes, when I first heard this name I thought it was just a comic mispronunciation); it's co-written by, among others, This American Life's Ira Glass.
The tale is woven from three distinct narrative threads: first, Matt's confused relationship with his wonderful girlfriend Abby (Lauren Ambrose), whom he's been seeing for eight years but still can't envision marrying; second, the vague, early glimmers of his success as a professional comic, as he hits the road in a beat-up Volvo for a series of low-paying (but paying!) gigs at colleges and bars; and, finally, his escalating travails with REM Behavior Disorder, a peculiar affliction that causes him to act out his dreams while still asleep, often becoming a pronounced danger to himself or others.
These threads are loosely bound together by the idea that Matt is in "denial"—denial about his relationship, denial about his condition, denial about his career prospects. But the connection feels lax, as if you could tug out any storyline without unraveling the rest. To cite one example, Matt's great comic epiphany comes when he realizes that he can get bigger laughs with jokes about his romantic troubles than those about, say, the cookie monster. But even though there are several moments when this is raised as a potential problem—shouldn't he at least let Abby know he's telling jokes about their life together?—the idea is never pursued or resolved.
Its shortcomings were not in places where it took chances, but in ones where it declined to do so.Similarly, when Matt is told that patients with his particular sleep disorder have been known to somnambulantly kill the people they're sleeping with, one imagines this revelation may ultimately have some bearing on Matt and Abby's future together. But, no, it too is discarded without further mention. Indeed, despite her early primacy, Abby vanishes from the film altogether for long stretches of Matt's road-tripping. Yes, he's finally getting work. But he can't be on the road for months straight, can he?
Under many circumstances, I'd applaud such deviations from the narrative norm—who needs a movie that goes to all the obvious places, after all? But in Sleepwalk with Me, they feel less like deliberate choices and more like careless omissions—or worse, a kind of emotional timidity, an unwillingness to dig beneath the surface, even a little, regarding why Matt does what he does. There are too many times when sleepwalking seems not only the movie's theme, but its method.
If I have one other quibble—and alas, I do—it's that dreams remain a profoundly fraught subject for cinematic representation. (It's a predicament wonderfully satirized in Tom DiCillo's 1995 Living in Oblivion.) Listening to Birbiglia describe his sleep disorder on This American Life—the nightmares he had about jackals, and Dustbustering in the Olympics, and guided missiles targeting his head—was a eerie, evocative experience. But seeing these episodes dramatized, and thus literalized, onscreen can hardly help but diminish them. First time, tragicomedy; second time, camp.
Is this an unduly demanding review of a slight but largely likable film? Perhaps. Again, I liked Sleepwalk with Me; I just felt it fell far short of its potential, and its shortcomings were not in places where it took chances, but in ones where it declined to do so. I remain a fan of Birbiglia and of This American Life, and I recommend that anyone who feels likewise give this film a shot, albeit with measured expectations. It may be that mine were too high. It may be (I hope it will be) that you'll enjoy it more than I did. Or it may be that some stories—say, tales of high-wire sleepwalking—are better suited to a 12-minute radio story than to an 80-minute feature film.
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