Film Review: Sleepwalk with Me

Mike Birbiglia's wonderfully deft "opening up" of his stand-up routine is a rare achievement in this genre and a supremely self-deprecating delight.

Mike Birbiglia's one-man show Sleepwalk with Me was a wry and very funny personal revelation about his love life, career and major sleeping disorder, in which he not only walked while unconscious, but imagined jackals in his bedroom and at one point threw himself out of a hospital window. It excited the attention of stars like Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick and had a very healthy New York run. With this engaging film based on that material, Birbiglia has proved himself not only a hilariously adept performer and writer but a real director as well.

From the winning opening scene, which has him advising the audience to turn off their cell-phones, which brings to his mind a droll experience in a movie theatre, Birbiglia has skillfully opened up his play and, incidentally, made one of the best portraits ever committed to film of what it's like to be a working comedian. It's a true cautionary tale to any aspirant in that field, with the incessant humiliations of indifferent audiences, tending bar in a comedy club which occasionally throws him a performing bone to cover some performer emergency, being on the grueling road driving from one low-paying gig to the next, and dealing with venal managers. This last is played by Sondra James, stealing every scene she's in as the epitome of blasé show-biz crustiness, who, in what is one of the funniest screen moments of the year, casually munches microwave popcorn out of a cone devised from an 8x10 of one of her hapless clients while lamely advising Birbiglia (known here as the eternally mispronounced "Matt Pandamiglio").

All this initial lack of success takes its toll on Matt's relationships with family (James Rebhorn in his best overbearing dad mode and mom Carol Kane, puckishly given to verbal non-sequiturs like "I bought this cake off the Internet"), as well as his girlfriend, Abby (Lauren Ambrose, likeable as ever in an impressive array of hairstyles). She and Matt have been together for enough time to make the question of marriage a fraught embarrassment, and commitment-phobic Birbiglia charts this familiar comic terrain with joyously fresh humor and insight. (“Marriage is like cake,” Rebhorn says at one point in a questionable wedding toast. “It tastes good at first, but after you eat enough cake…”)

Birbiglia has obviously rounded out his cast with genial pals, many of them comics themselves, who contribute much to the rich, laugh-filled texture. And again, it's his progress as a comedian which proves the highly satisfying crux of his film. Matt goes from quirky observations about zoo animals (followed by the inevitable "That's all I got") to trenchant observations of relationships and the male orgasm—i.e., more personal stuff, which has him convincingly winning over all those minimum-paying skeptics sitting in the dark with their arms folded and drinks in front of them. You seriously root for this charismatically self-deprecating schlub maneuvering his way through a crazy life, always questioning and deliciously commenting on the “normal” madness around him.