By Steve Persall
Times Movie Critic
Sleepwalk With Me is a movie about the road-dog grind of cut-rate standup comedians that knows what it's talking about, not the phony stuff foisted by Funny People and Punchline. (Backstage lockers for comics? Yeah, right.)
Director, co-writer and star Mike Birbiglia doesn't cut to the jokes; rather he ladles on details some comedians prefer to forget: club owners docking pay for eating lousy chicken fingers, gigs booked at walkathons, and audiences that apparently paid cover charges to act like they would rather be somewhere else.
Fibbing to an agent that you have 30 minutes of material when there's only 11. The way a cheap motel room seems awesome when it's covered by your first paycheck for telling jokes. Birbiglia knows this standup-and-roll-over life because he lived it, although his ingratiating filmmaking debut has a stranger personal story to tell.
Birbiglia has been diagnosed with REM sleep behavior disorder, a more severe form of sleepwalking because sufferers physically interact with their dreams. It almost killed him once, an incident depicted here. Birbiglia tuned his comedy instincts into the affliction, creating a one-man off-Broadway hit and getting the attention of Ira Glass' This American Life program on National Public Radio. Sleepwalk With Me is the quasiautobiographical version of Birbiglia's story, produced and co-written by Glass.
Birbiglia calls himself Mike Pandamiglio here, perhaps to leave some doubt about the characterizations of people in his wobbly orbit. The closest to him is Abby (Lauren Ambrose), a vivacious contrast to Mike's lethargic nature. Theirs is an Annie Hall kind of love, steeped in inside jokes and outward incompatibility. Abby supports Mike's comedian dream until the road keeps him away too long, the result of jokes he wrote about their relationship without her knowledge. They're killing, and he feels guilty about that.
The romance is bittersweet and the comedy insights sharp, yet what emotionally broadens Sleepwalk With Me is Mike's sleep disorder. It becomes a point of contention with Abby and his intrusive parents (Carol Kane, James Rebhorn), and the source of surreal dream sequences that are funny until Mike wakes up, confused and out of control. Gradually the disorder takes over the movie, shifting it into a faintly documentary mode, like a monologist digressing to solidify a point.
I've watched Sleepwalk With Me twice now, each time impressed with Birbiglia's confidence in revealing so much about his craft and himself, and the freely associated style with which he does it. It's true that comedians often kill the first time onstage, then struggle in vain to reclaim that feeling. As a filmmaker, Birbiglia shouldn't have that problem.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365.