For a time, Sleepwalk with Me plays like an echo chamber of thirtysomething male malaise, its arrested-development tropes and bromides bouncing around infernally. With countless precursors as recent as Jeff, Who Lives at Home having told and retold the same story, new movies about the rudderless generation of cash-strapped man-children seem less and less like reflections of the real world than regurgitations of a shopworn thesis. For instance, as the camera tags along with writer-director-star Mike Birbiglia, who, via the frequent use of direct address, recaps the largely autobiographical tale of his on-screen self, Matt Pandamiglio, interest steadily drifts away from Matt and toward his girlfriend, Abby (Lauren Ambrose), who actually has unique interests, dreams, and inner life worth exploring. The movie makes you think, “Why aren’t there more films about women in post-20s funks?” But as Sleepwalk with Me gradually plays its hand, it thankfully reveals itself to be more than more of the same, and Birbiglia, a harmless semi-oaf whose trendy, monotonous shtick riffs on Cookie Monster and The A-Team, proves to be more than just the Gen-Y Ellen Degeneres.
An expansion of Birbiglia’s celebrated one-man show, which sold out Manhattan’s Bleecker Street Theatre for eight months in 2008, Sleepwalk with Me has more apparent truths to tell about the life of a stand-up comic than anything in Judd Apatow’s Funny People. That the film pulls back a curtain on a trade is one of its saving graces, and though they’re certainly molded to fit a script formula, none of the work details are ever made to appear glamorous. “I went from wanting to be famous doing stand-up, to making a living doing stand-up, to picking up 20 dollars in the street,” a bit player says early on. As for Matt, he may be lazy, but he’s realistically suffering for his art, initially tending bar at the only venue that’ll let him hit the stage, then schlepping it to truly pitiful, far-off gigs, unable to say no to a third-rate female agent who calls to mind the chain-smoking broad Joey Tribbiani confided in on Friends. Anyone who’s accepted less than what they’re worth in the name of passion will instantly empathize with Matt, whose road trips teach him to add more real-life anecdotes to his act, while exposing him to the vicious ire of comedy patrons who don’t get the laughs they paid for.
The movie’s secret weapon and elephant in the room is REM sleep behavior disorder, a condition from which the real-life Birbiglia and his filmic persona suffer, and a conflict that’s observed peripherally until it becomes the ultimate focus. The disorder, which trumps sleepwalking in that the sleeper physically interacts with his dream environment, can be tricky when it comes to safety and relationships, as sufferers can very realistically kill themselves or others. The way Sleepwalk with Me utilizes this perfectly idiosyncratic element, delaying its impact and then humbly respecting its darkly funny menace, allows for all sorts of incidental benefits, including startling dream sequences that enhance the film’s aesthetic, and a built-in metaphor for Matt’s life-consuming lethargy. Co-developed by NPR’s Ira Glass from a This American Life segment detailing Birbiglia’s act, the film is the first of many being spawned from episodes of Glass’s show, which has grown its own film production arm. After a rocky start, Sleepwalk with Me manages to share the radio program’s searching curiosity, salvaging a familiar setup with the tender treatment of something so offbeat, it must be real. The funny thing about the movie isn’t its failure-to-launch humor, but the weird mess of life that rushes in despite it.