Run Right Past Birbiglia’s "Sleepwalk With Me"

By Sean Burns
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Sep. 12, 2012

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Let's do it: Lauren Ambrose (left) and Mike Birbiglia star in "Sleepwalk With Me."

Sleepwalk With Me is an extension of a This American Life monologue by contributor Mike Birbiglia, produced by hipster God-head Ira Glass, that takes a great 10 minutes or so of radio and stretches it out to an almost interminable 80-minute running time onscreen, with no idea what to do with the visuals.

You’ve probably heard this routine by now. I believe it started on the spoken-word circuit, before Glass picked it up on his PRI radio show. Short version: Mike is an aspiring standup comic not in love with his fiancée, and his anxiety manifests itself in a weird sleepwalking disorder. Weeks on the road result in a somnambulistic breakdown, and he has to make a few life choices. The end.

This is a great radio bit. Birbiglia has a frankly conversational tone that’s awfully ingratiating. The problem is that somebody decided this was a movie—and it is not. He spends the early reels talking directly into the camera, which, in this digital video, DIY aesthetic, reeks of amateur hour. Nobody bothered to outsize this interior monologue into an actual motion picture. So, from the get-go, it’s like we’re watching some overblown, under-photographed version of a story we’ve already heard.

Another problem: Birbiglia is indeed charming, but he’s also at least 10 years older than he was when the actual tale took place, sort of like The Rum Diary or that awful movie version of Rent in which everyone seems weirdly middle-aged, when they should really be in their 20s for anything happening onscreen to make sense.

It’s also not that much of a story. Playing the rhythmically renamed Matt Pandamiglio, Birbiglia graduates from open-mic nights to the road comedy circuit, much to the dismay of his aforementioned gal (Lauren Ambrose). His apprehension over this nonstarter of a marriage becomes a potentially dangerous sleep disorder, and that’s pretty much all there is to the movie. No subplots here; move along.

It put me in mind of the great Spalding Gray, who spent most of his bizarre, wide-ranging auto-biographical monologue Gray’s Anatomy ducking marriage with his longtime companion by seeking countless, arcane and quite often insane holistic medicines for an eye infection. Filmed (badly) by Steven Soderbergh in 1996, the movie version is missing the stage production’s reluctant groom subtext, for reasons of a then-recent divorce that was probably obvious to anyone paying attention.

Birbiglia is clearly no Spalding Gray, and it’s doubtful anyone could be, in all honesty—I consider Gray to be one of the greatest artists of our time, and his 2004 suicide hurt me in a way no celebrity death has ever before or since—but this slender little weed of a film speaks to the narcissism that has popped up all over podcasts and radio shows in his absence. Gray’s uniquely plainspoken monologues, so often filmed with the storyteller seated behind a desk with no props, save a notebook and a glass of water, invited us to listen to his words and conjure an imaginary movie of our own. Sorry, but having the lead actor talk into the camera in a variety of New York settings is just a wan approximation.

Sleepwalk With Me is almost acceptable while you are watching it, but nothing about the movie lingers in the mind. Birbiglia, who also directed along with Seth Barrish, might not be the best judge of his own material. He becomes a bit grating over the long haul. Indifferently photographed at best, the movie is supposed to power through on the strength of the main character’s monologue, shedding his suburban trappings and slowly becoming the great standup comic he always dreamed of being. Well, I get that we’re supposed to be watching a learning curve here, but Birbiglia ain’t all that great a comedian. Right now, he’s telling bittersweet autobiographical stories on public radio instead of jokes on the road, if you know what I mean.

The other, biggest problem here is that there’s not really enough movie for it to be a movie. Stretched to the breaking point at an hour and 20 minutes, Sleepwalk With Me never really stakes a claim for being any more than a slight film festival diversion.

And you’ve probably heard it all before.

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