Movie: ‘Sleepwalk With Me’ is worth the walk

By Will Ashton |
Sleepwalk With Me | Directed by Mike Birbiglia and Seth Barrish | Not Rated

Mike Birbiglia is one of the best comedians working today.

Or, at least, he’s one of my favorite comedians working today. His blend of narcotic humor and acute observations offer a hilarious mumbled-mouth view of the world. After years of doing stand-up, he finally wrote and performed a one-man show called Sleepwalk With Me on Broadway that received mass acclaim and went on to be a New York Times best-selling autobiography as well.

Now, he’s telling his life story on film. Marking his first time as a screenwriter, lead actor, and director, Birbiglia proves his talents go way beyond the stage.

Birbiglia plays a younger version of himself, more or less, but under the name Matt Pandamiglio. Pandamiglio is a struggling comedian working as a bartender and living with his girlfriend of eight years, Abby. Already under the stress of his failing stand-up career, Pandamiglio also gets burdened with the dilemma that his girlfriend wants to move on to marriage and children once Matt’s sisters gets engaged.

This leads to another problem: a chronic sleepwalking disorder, which involves him fighting furniture he believes is a jackal and climbing and falling off desks when accepting an award from the DustBuster Olympics. Pandamiglio finds a way to include these issues into his stand-up career, and it finally begins to take off.  But as it does so, he begins to lose touch with his girlfriend and his family, and all the while his sleepwalking problem continues to get worse.

Birbiglia’s stand-up can best be described to someone as a mix between Mitch Hedberg (who was also a mentor and late friend of Birbiglia) and Woody Allen. His filmmaking style, however, is a cross between Allen and Louis C.K’s work on his show, Louie. It’s hard not to watch C.K’s show and Birbiglia’s film and avoid comparing the two.

Whereas Louie is cynical and surreal, however, Sleepwalk With Me is much more sincere and straightforward. Much like in Allen’s films, Birbiglia will speak directly to the camera and narrate with them the events that are at play, even mentioning at times that this is a film in an offbeat, sort-of meta way.

Both do an excellent job, however, at translating their stand-up into a narrative. In rather groundbreaking ways, they are changing stand-up as we know it, taking it from being a one-person account into telling their life stories and feelings in a singular, visual way. The fact that both are as successful as they are is extremely impressive as well.

As this is his first time directing, Birbiglia isn’t without his first-time jitters. Much like the first season of Louie, the tone will switch often from funny to dramatic without a lot of breathing room for the audience, much of this during the second act. Also during this time, Birbiglia will jump around from various story lines and themes without a lot of say, going from stand-up troubles, to sleepwalking issues, to worries of marriage and commitments in his relationship with little transition.

But where usually this will become worse in the third act and potentially ruin a film, Sleepwalk actually progresses as it continues into its final reel. Once Birbiglia gets a firm grasp on the concept that sleepwalking is the metaphor for his fear of marriage, his career, and the future in general, he uses this to tie up the film strongly and bring a bittersweet and touching end to his story.

Written by Mike Birbiglia, Joe Birbiglia (his brother), Ira Glass (NPR’s This American Life), and Seth Barrish, who’s also a co-director on the film, the writing of the film is able to give a personal and honest reflection of life and what we want in our future through Birbiglia’s usual observations and life stories. But more than this, Sleepwalk With Me ties all these ideas together in a way that is both fresh and entertaining, and ultimately connects you as an audience even if you’re not a fan of Birbiglia’s stand-up.

Because of all this, Sleepwalk With Me is one of the best films I have seen so far this year. It’s funny and it’s sad, but it’s also very heartfelt and honest. Birbiglia continues to grow as a storyteller and continues to develop how far his talents can go. Hopefully his new one-man show, My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend, can get a big-screen treatment as well.



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