Stand-up comic Mike Birbiglia’s Sleepwalk With Me started out as a one-man show performed off Broadway in 2008. From there, it became a bestselling book, Sleepwalk With Me: and Other Painfully True Stories in 2010. Now, fleshed out with a supporting cast, it’s a movie directed by and starring Birbiglia and written by him with Ira Glass, (brother) Joe Birbiglia and Seth Barrish. The movie is pleasant entertainment with overtones of personal confession, enjoyable if you can disregard any lingering memories of Annie Hall. But that’s not easy to do; Woody Allen’s 1977 masterpiece haunts the dark recesses of Sleepwalk With Me like the ghost of Anne Boleyn stalking the corridors of the Tower of London.
Birbiglia plays Matt Pandamiglio, a name that underscores and italicizes the feeling of autobiography. Matt’s aim in life is to be a stand-up comic, so he works tending bar in a comedy club, snatching the odd five minutes onstage when the boss will let him. When he does, we see there are two obstacles to Matt’s reaching his goal: his jokes are lousy, and his delivery is worse—shamefaced, as if he knows (and who wouldn’t?) that he has no right to be up there.
Like Annie Hall’s Alvy Singer, Matt opens the movie talking to the camera, asking us to turn off our cellphone, and telling us how “it all started” when he and his girlfriend Abby (Lauren Ambrose) decided to move in together. It was clearly more Abby’s decision than Matt’s; she’s a beaming redhead, perky and vivacious, while he’s withdrawn to the point of appearing drab, wearing his guarded diffidence like a cloak of invisibility.
An engagement party for Matt’s sister Janet (Cristin Milioti) turns up the familial heat on Matt and Abby: “You’re next!” “She’s a keeper!” Finally, a deadly question: “How long have you and Abby been together?” The brutal truth: eight years, more than twice as long as Janet and her new fiancé. Later that night, as they prepare for bed, Matt tries to joke about it. “You don’t really want to get married, right?” Hope flickers in Abby’s eyes before she can hide it. “You asking?” “No … I …” Hope dies. “Then, no.”
That night, Abby is awakened to find Matt attacking the clothes hamper, groggily raving that there’s a jackal in their room. Matt’s overbearing father (James Rebhorn) worries that Matt needs to see a doctor, but Matt blows it off, even when his nocturnal spells grow worse under Abby’s timid feelers about marriage and kids: Matt dreams that he’s on the winner’s stand after his gold medal in the Dustbuster Olympics; in real life, he falls off the dresser and bangs his head.
Against all odds, comedy gigs start opening up for Matt, and he spends more and more time on the road—usually in backwater colleges and clubs for small change and free food; places that’ll take anybody. Matt’s jokes are still rotten, and he still knows it—until he starts making jokes about “my girlfriend,” and how he doesn’t want to get married until he’s sure nothing else good will ever happen to him. He starts getting laughs, and his diffidence begins to change from a hiding place to a style. He’s away from home more and more, but Abby’s still back there, and the stress-sleepwalking grows more and more obvious; a fellow comic tells him he’s not really supposed to act his dreams out: “They’re like movies, y’know, you just sorta watch ’em.”
Mike Birbiglia does in fact suffer from an extreme sleep disorder—the official term is “REM behavior disorder”—and the climactic near disaster that happens to Matt really happened to him. The clear sense that we’re seeing the barely veiled story of Birbiglia’s real life saves Sleepwalk With Me from being a shameless ripoff. Birbiglia himself—or at least Matt—comes off as an amiable schlub, slowly finding his real self onstage and off. And even within the Annie Hall template, there are surprises: Lauren Ambrose’s Abby is an unexpected pleasure, especially when she brightens the screen singing in a voice like a silver bell, an impromptu verse of “Side By Side.”
Matt/Mike invites us to sleepwalk with him. All in all, the two of them aren’t unpleasant company.