Sundance 2012: ‘Sleepwalk with Me’ a comic parable for procrastinators
Sleepwalk With Me
Directed by Mike Birbiglia
Screenplay by Joe Birbiglia and Mike Birbiglia
Mike Birbiglia is now a successful comedian heard on NPR’s This American Life and seen on the Comedy Central but not so very long ago he was struggling personally with an eight year relationship he wasn’t exactly committing to coupled with a career that just wouldn’t take off. Sleepwalk with Me is about the long road to any sense of stability for him. Literally ignoring every piece of advice from the most important people in his life, he delays major decisions for what seem like pipe dreams. This is about a time in Birbiglia’s life where he was stuck in limbo- torn between what his ideal life might be like and existing in the middling reality that kept him clamouring for something better but just wasn’t pushing him hard enough to propel real action.
Mike’s character in the story is the thinly veiled Matt Pandamiglio. Birbiglia plays Pandamiglio in the narrative but also intermediately interjects commentary as his future Birbiglia self while driving a car around an unspecified city. He offers excuses for suspect behavior and insight on why Matt keeps stalling so many decisions. These narrations from the real Mike that breach the fourth wall remind us of the multitude of reasons we cannot reach conclusions easily and take chances without trepidation. There are conflicting voices speaking to us with caution and out of selfish ID. Gems from these asides include: “Remember- you’re on my side” and “I know, I’m in the future too.” Pandamiglio does possess what he needs: a relationship that helps him function on a basic level and a job bartending that helps him pay the bills. What he really wants is an elusive fame where he’ll have an audience who will be entertained by his neuroses. Not going to see a doctor for a sleepwalking disorder in which he physically acts out the events of his dreams puts Matt in danger but ends up being the added stress that allows him to see his life a little clearer and articulate his flaws in a way that people begin to connect to.
With the help of a doubtful talent agent he is soon on the road to little colleges and dive bars, where his comedy is at first lost on mostly stoic patrons. He bombs onstage and still doesn’t have the perfect words to reassure the fears of his girlfriend. These are just two of the ways in which Birbiglia doesn’t use this film as a cinematic platform to applaud himself or waste our time with an ego trip. His material isn’t a hit until he starts speaking about his relationship. His thoughts are insightful because they are faithful to how he truly feels about his girlfriend Abby (Lauren Ambrose of Six Feet Under) and relationships in general. Somehow Birbiglia manages not to demonize the girlfriend- yes, she wants commitment, marriage, and children, but doesn’t come across as suffocating or someone he really wants to make fun of. She cares for Mike/Matt and longs for his career and their life to go places. He doesn’t tell her why he starts to succeed and book more lucrative gigs. The cost of getting his name out there is exposing what has been wrong between them for years. There isn’t an impending sense of doom about his actions but a perception that honesty and facing concrete decisions is finally putting his life and ambitions on the right course. The sleepwalking adds fuel to his chaotic propulsion toward stand-up acclaim.
The dream seuences that plunge us into Mike’s subconscious are key both as a plot and comedic device. Whether these sleepwalking experiences are exaggerated or unequivocally real- they are frenzied, surrealistic events that take the film from good to great. They mix and match desires, confuse real life events and confront his hesitations. Birbiglia’s comedic success comes from wittily conveying his many insecurities and so the visual depiction of his erratic sleepwalking delivers us to the edge of these ridiculous anxieties. It is unavoidable that the sleepwalking will become too dangerous to live with and force him into finally confronting what is delaying him from becoming who he truly wants to be and who he wants to be with. Sleepwalk with Me is brilliantly mesmerizing in it’s ability to draw one into Birbiglia’s uproarious irrational rationale without denying that he is a imperfect and had to fight for courage.
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