April 2013

Arts & Letters

‘Sleepwalk with Me’ film review

By Luke Davies
Call a somnambulance

“I think to be a comedian you have to be a little bit delusional. Particularly starting out, there’s just so much failure. And amidst that failure you have to tell yourself, ‘It’s going quite nicely.’ Because if you didn’t, you’d just never get on stage again. You’d be like, ‘I guess human beings don’t like me.’”

Mike Birbiglia, who relates these thoughts to us in Sleepwalk with Me, a slight, charming and often quietly hilarious film that he co-wrote, co-directed and stars in (co-directed by Seth Barrish; in national release 4 April), began his professional life as a stand-up comic. Clearly, he suffered in those earliest days some of the trials and low points that seem to be the stuff of every comedian’s origin myth. It doesn’t get much more challenging than trying out your new material in shabby bars thinly populated by the surly, the dismissive and the antagonistic – as well as those ordinary punters who simply enjoy the blood sport of watching greenhorns die on stage.

Birbiglia, a warm, talented and adroit performer whose schtick is a kind of humble bumbling, has long known respect and a certain level of success, and it’s been a fair stretch of time since he’s played to 11 people at a comedy night in, say, rural Pennsylvania. But in Sleepwalk with Me he brings those early years – the slings and arrows of his own coming of age as a comic – to the forefront.

Birbiglia plays Matt Pandamiglio (a lovely name shift, with its hint of pandemonium), whose bartending career is occasionally interrupted by jarring moments of abject failure as a stand-in stand-up, called in at the last minute to replace no-shows in half-deserted comedy clubs. Matt’s been in a relationship for about ten years with voice teacher Abby (Lauren Ambrose, who for five seasons was terrific as the daughter in television’s great Six Feet Under). The relationship is not flatlining, but for Abby they are certainly at a point that is both plateau and crossroads: are we moving forward? Are we getting married? What are we actually going to do with this aspiring comic thing? And why are you so existentially hopeless?

Step by sometimes-humiliating, always-painful step, Matt’s career as a performer begins to take off. He finds for himself a quirky manager somewhat past her prime, who specialises in getting him the world’s smallest gigs for the world’s lowest pay in the world’s – or rather, the US eastern seaboard’s – most unlikely backwoods venues.

He goes on the road. He lives in cheap hotels. He hones his act. His stress levels rise tremendously.

On the surface, this stress doesn’t take too great a toll, and life seems manageable enough. But at night a sleep disorder begins to stir and grow, like some rough beast slouching towards Pandamiglio to be born.

The condition, called “REM behaviour disorder”, is a peculiarly dangerous one: sufferers physically act out the dream they are having, responding to dream cues rather than real-world cues, so that they might, for instance, dive – as Matt does – head-first through a first-floor window.

In his real life, Birbiglia was making regular appearances on the Late Shows – Letterman, Jimmy Kimmel, Jimmy Fallon – was filling good-sized halls, and had done three Comedy Central specials when, restless in the late 2000s, he started to make a shift from straight stand-up to more complex, layered, emotional narratives that were closer to one-man shows or theatre. In his real life, too, he suffered – and still does – from REM behaviour disorder. Sleepwalk with Me began life as a 13-minute piece on a storytelling podcast. Later, as an off-Broadway one-man show, it had a sold-out eight-month run.

The film, in turning Birbiglia into Pandamiglio, compresses the narratives of early career struggle, sleep disorder and relationship quandaries, and runs them concurrently. There’s a deftness to this extremely simple interweaving that frees up the whole endeavour a little, that lifts it above the mass of thinly veiled semi-autobiographical, low-budget indie films from first-time directors. Letting it trip quite lightly on its feet endears us to its tale and its characters. Audiences love Birbiglia because he connects very directly to them, with all his insecurities exposed – you could never say he’s acidic or haughty – and the choice to frame this story with a particular kind of voice-over narration seems a wise enough one.

“I’m going to tell you a story, and it’s true,” Matt begins. But we’re not just hearing the voice-over. Rather, at intervals during the film Matt speaks directly to us as he drives around, relating the story in a retrospective narrative that pretends to be disorganised but is actually moderately high on artifice. “When I was getting ready to make this film,” he says at one point, beginning an anecdote. “We’ll get to that later,” he says elsewhere, on another matter. It’s all very meta, in the cheesiest tongue-in-cheek way, but Birbiglia’s affability means we’re happy to sit in the passenger seat, so to speak. (There’s a notable exception to this: Matt listens to an audio book, The Promise of Sleep by Dr William Dement, and in a pleasantly goofy stunt-casting cameo, the real Dr Dement, who runs the apparently world-renowned Sleep Research Center, appears in the passenger seat beside him, riffing about sleep disorders; as an actor, the soothing Dr Dement makes a very good sleep researcher.)

The asides to camera are well paced. “Before I tell you this part of the story,” says Matt to us midway through the film, “I want to remind you that you’re on my side.” It’s a funny line, though in fact we don’t need reminding. The first time Matt ever gets on stage, at an open mic night, egged on by Abby, he only has two jokes, and no one other than Abby even laughs. Yet one of the jokes is quite beautiful, despite Matt’s nervous incoherence, and we see something of what there is to love about this guy. “I was thinking about stick insects,” Matt begins.

“Like, if I were an insect – I’m not an insect, like I know that – but if I were an insect, I’d hate to be a stick insect, ’cos all the other insects are always, like, bumping into you, ’cos they don’t know you’re there, and you’ve gotta just be like, ‘Watch it!’ and they’re like, ‘Yeah, you look like a stick,’ and you’re just like, ‘Yeah, but I have eyes,’ and they’re like, ‘Yeah – they were closed.’”

It’s not everyone’s kind of stand-up, but there’s a welcome absence of brashness. What that little tale contains, in its subtle rendering of an outsider being jostled by a harsh world, is tenderness. Writ larger, that’s how the film itself works. The characters are beautifully drawn – Matt’s parents (played by James Rebhorn and Carol Kane) are a batty yet believable pair of opposites, and many of the minor roles are played by Birbiglio’s friends and contemporaries in the stand-up world. The relationship between Matt and Abby contains neither too much broadness nor too much indie angst. We’re invested in seeing its resolution; there’s a nice twist and a time-leap in how it in fact plays out.

The tenderness, the gentleness, resonates also in Matt’s journey as a stand-up comic: Sleepwalk with Me reinforces the notion that stand-ups, if not fundamentally sad or outright depressed, are at the very least melancholic types. The bizarre comic heart of the movie is found not in the world of the comedy clubs in which much of it takes place, but in its portrayal of Matt’s struggle with a sleep disorder that, while hilarious in the retelling, must surely be awful when experienced. “Abby! There’s a jackal in the room!” screams a terrified, panicked Matt early in the film, walking around in the dark. The well-imagined dream-sequences don’t dominate the screen time, but they are the film’s most effective method of ratcheting up the tension.

The jackal scene is both menacing and disturbingly funny. We’re in a comedy, of course, so funny will win out. But we’re also in a comedy about comedy, and comics. Though Matt Pandamiglio might not have a sour bone in his body, Mike Birbiglio the writer and director can pass some stern judgement – as here, in the mouth of a fellow comic (Alex Karpovsky) who has just come off stage and is talking to Matt:

“I’m out there on stage, killing it. Meanwhile, I’ve got friends out in Hollywood – terrible comics, the worst. Just – leaking this pandering derivative comedic pus. You know? But they’re on sitcoms. They have infinity pools. They’re taking flying lessons. I know a guy with a wiffle ball stadium. Used to work here. Now he’s got a wiffle ball stadium in his backyard. It’s malignant.”

Luke Davies

Luke Davies is a novelist, screenplay writer and poet. He is the author of Candy, God of Speed, Totem (the winner of the Age Book of the Year in 2004) and Interferon Psalms (winner of the Prime Minister’s Literary Award in 2012). 

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