August 31, 2012
One night in a La Quinta motel room, comedian and storyteller Mike Birbiglia jumped through a second-story window while acting out one of his dreams, ending up in the hospital with a leg full of broken glass. Well, it's a living. Since then he has turned his adventures in sleep disorders into fodder for his stand-up act, an Off-Broadway solo show, an excerpt on "This American Life," a live comedy album, the title story in his best-selling comic memoir and now, a trim and effective feature film, which Birbiglia co-directed with co-writer Seth Barrish. The only thing left for "Sleepwalk With Me" is to be turned into a Broadway musical, which would require a title change to "Sleepwalk with Me!"
The "SleepWalk with Me" screenplay collaborators included "This American Life" creator Ira Glass, along with Joe Birbiglia (Mike's brother). The movie works largely because on camera, Birbiglia has no skill or interest in bringing the standard-issue comedian's energy to selling his material, or his persona. With a voice that sounds like a lower-key Ray Romano and an amiably disheveled air, the star of "Sleepwalk With Me" plays a version of himself named Matt Pandamiglia. Matt's bump-along progress in the touring stand-up world provides one narrative thread. Another is the pleasant but static eight-year relationship between Matt and his vibrant girlfriend, Abby, played by Lauren Ambrose of "Six Feet Under."
Matt's ingrained passive-aggressive approach to their life together ("You don't want to get married, right?" he sort of asks one night) nibbles away at their collective future. Matt's sleep problems get weirder. The film acts as both a diary of a sidewinding comic stylist finding his style, almost by accident, and a reminder to all post-collegiate boyfriends and girlfriends that "OK" probably isn't good enough for either party.
Some expansion problems hinder "Sleepwalk With Me" a bit. However zestily acted by the likes of Carol Kane (as Mom) and James Rebhorn (as Dad, a genial bully, forever trying to control the flow and point of a conversation), some of the family scenes feel padded, routine. Ambrose is so naturally likable she becomes a neon sign reading: This woman deserves better. But Birbiglia knows this, and suspected as much when the real-life equivalent of what we see here was happening.
With a refreshing lack of fake glamour, the film captures what it's like to be an initially unpromising comedian on the road. Birbiglia was sleepwalking through more than one aspect of his existence. Then he woke up and found, paradoxically, he was able to sleep, with a little help from the medical community and a sleeping bag.
Ira Glass will co-host the local Music Box Theatre premiere of "Sleepwalk With Me" this weekend. Next month (Oct. 25-29) Birbiglia brings his new solo show, "My Girlfriend's Boyfriend," to Victory Gardens Theater.
No MPAA rating (some language, mild sexuality and violence)
Running time: 1:30
Opens: Friday at the Music Box Theatre; also available on VOD.
Copyright © 2014 Chicago Tribune Company, LLC