Matt Pandamiglio (Mike Birbiglia) tends bar at a hotspot that also occasionally has comics onstage. He’s been in a relationship with Abby (Lauren Ambrose) for more than eight years, and she’s been hinting strongly at marriage and babies and the like, which has poor Matt a little discombobulated. (Hint: he’s not sure he’s ready, nor good enough, for that.) He hems and haws and just can’t commit. Sounds like a typical dude, right? In a way, sure, which makes Matt all the more like the rest of us. And luckily, because Birbiglia (who cowrote the screenplay with Ira Glass of NPR) is so, well, normal, the role is imbued with a strong layer of honesty. This is not some glossy Hollywood romcom.
But Matt has an unusual, additional problem: he sleepwalks. Oh, he doesn’t just go into another room, sit down, get up, then go back to bed. Matt’s walking is much more violent in nature; he is prone to acting out his dreams, which may mean fighting someone (a shower curtain) or even walking repeatedly into a wall. It’s disturbing, to say the least, and his father (James Remar), a no-nonsense doctor, insists that Matt see a specialist immediately, as in now. But Matt shrugs it all off, thinking he needs to focus on his career and his girl, and not necessarily in that order.
This is not to say that Matt is a bad guy. He gets a chance at the bar to tell some jokes, and he finds an agent as a result, which soon has him crisscrossing the Northeast US, doing small gigs for actual pay. It’s fascinating to see someone so dedicated, driving hundreds of miles to make $100 or so, then driving hundreds more in the opposite direction to make a little more. It’s tough work, and only those who truly believe they’ve found their spot in life’s grand scheme will undertake it.
It’s only when Matt begins to work his real life into his performances that his career takes a genuinely positive turn, a little fact that he keeps from Abby. Now, his combination of observational humor and relationship woes works very well with his audiences, and he begins to develop a name for himself. But where, you might ask, does that leave Abby?
That is what I liked the very most about this film. Now, bear in mind that this is a comedy more than anything else, so it is practically assured of a happy ending. And it gets one – just not the one you might expect to get. And the ending works. It works emphatically well, a terrific coda to a beautiful, sincere film about a schlub and his art and his girl. Because Birbiglia is so perfect for the role (yes, he wrote it, but how often does that mean he can act it as well), the movie is a by-gosh success. It’s a movie without a Bad Guy. It’s a movie that doesn’t look at a relationship between a man and a woman and ask the audience to choose one for whom to root. Both Abby and Matt are good people (though you kind of wonder what Abby really sees in Matt other than being able to make her laugh); they’re just not necessarily right for each other.
Sleepwalk with Me is, indeed, a true sleeper of a movie. It stars an unknown commodity (both as an actor and as a comic) in a movie he wrote himself, often a recipe for disaster. And yet despite those long odds, the movie is compelling and perfectly told, narrated by Birbiglia himself (often speaking into a camera directly as if he were filming a documentary on his life). Are there laughs? There are laughs. There are laughs complemented by poignancy and optimism. Sleepwalk with Me is a well-formed, quirky film that’s decidedly outside of the cookie-cutter Hollywood milieu.
Sleepwalk with Me: ***