Charlie Chaplin once said: “To truly laugh, you must be able to take your pain and play with it.” Mike Birbiglia takes the pain of a struggling comic, an unsure boyfriend and a scared sleep disorder patient, and plays with these mounting problems for our amusement. Not many sleep disorder stories—even those first shared with Ira Glass on This American Life—have ever been as funny as Birbiglia’s.
Based on his real-life struggle with sleepwalking, his alter-ego, Mike Pandamiglio recounts this odd story from the driver’s seat of a car as if talking to a friend, occasionally asking for the audience’s opinion or clarifying his motives for his listeners. He explains that he loves his girlfriend, Abby (Lauren Ambrose), but is afraid to commit to her since he’s still piecing together his own life. He wants desperately to become a comedian but is stuck behind the bar serving drinks to the performers at a comedy club. We feel for Mike’s frustrated quest to prove his passion that no one else takes seriously. He cleverly deals with his sleep disorder to make it seem as innocuous as possible until he runs out of his hotel room—through a window. Luckily, Mike walks away to tell the tale and reach his punchline. The crushing sense of embarrassment is rather brief in comparison to the rest of the movie, but Pandamiglio is naturally an awkward character who sets himself up for more sticky situations. As an off-beat movie that depends on his conversational delivery, Sleepwalk with Me manages to avoid many of the standard romantic comedy pratfalls.
The surrealist dream sequences are thoughtfully composed, incorporating several scenarios and characters and inserting them into ludicrous situations. For instance, after watching an episode of the fictional Wedding Stories series, Pandamiglio finds the couple stars of the show in his dream awarding him flowers and medals for winning the “Dust Busting Olympics.” When he allows his personal life into his comedy routines, his popularity skyrockets, and the tour schedule threatens to aggravate his sleep disorder. He becomes a kind of Gremlin that isn’t allowed to eat large meals before bed, must set a regular sleep schedule, and turn off electronics in order to curb symptoms. Other comedians, like Kristen Schaal, John Lutz and Wyatt Cenac, crop up in Sleepwalk with Me as if Pandamiglio’s life was a comedy club. It’s a fun hide-and-seek game to spot the familiar faces if you’re up-to-date with your Comedy Central specials. Their cameos inject light into what could have easily become a dark comedy, and thankfully, they never allow the energy or sarcasm of the film to falter.
Perhaps as a side-effect of Sleepwalk’s dream-like quality, it never quite achieves a hearty laugh. Many of the one-line zingers and jokes feel like random thoughts that pop into conversation rather than a well-crafted jokes with a setups and payoffs. And while the deadpan delivery of the series of unfortunate events is amusing, it can grow tiring. It’s also easy to feel frustrated with Mike’s character, since as the leading man, he doesn’t quite mature from the start of the film. There is a sense that Pandamiglio is a man-child who really doesn’t want to grow up, after all. Sleepwalk with Me isn’t a coming-of-age story. It’s more of a survivor’s saga of winning the “Dust Busting Olympics” and running through a window at La Quinta—and even stranger things like overcoming the jackals in the hamper. You know, the stuff that dreams are made of.
Directors: Mike Birbiglia & Seth Barrish
Writers: Mike Birbiglia, Joe Birbiglia, Ira Glass & Seth Barrish
Starring: Mike Birbiglia, Lauren Ambrose, Cristin Milioti, James Rebhorn, Carol Kane
Release Date: Aug. 24, 2012