SLEEPWALK WITH ME (R)
3 stars out of 4
With a gestation period of almost 10 years, "Sleepwalk with Me" was first part of a stand-up routine then an off-Broadway one-man play and in 2011 as a not-quite best-selling book. The pace and content of the swiftly told 90 minute movie give it the feel of a piece that has been performed so often, it could appear canned to most audiences who know nothing about it.
In this day and age, "canned" is not always such a bad thing. In part because of audiences' demands, most studio trailers now all but give away every major plot point and if you check out the trailer for "Sleepwalk" you can essentially determine the entire story, but don't do so if you can avoid it.
Co-written, co-directed and starring creator Mike Birbiglia, "Sleepwalk" comes with all the trappings of twee art-house comedies. Shot on a shoestring budget with barely-average production values and a half-dozen or so actors you've seen many times before but might have a tough time identifying by name.
As Matt, Birbiglia opens the movie by breaking the invisible fourth wall and reminding the audience they're watching a film. This approach works far better on stage or in documentaries, which "Sleepwalk" often resembles. It is the first, constant and only major flaw in an otherwise humorous, touching and insightful movie.
Apart from Matt's handful of audience chats, the rest of the story is told in flashback which is usually not ideal but works well with this story. A huge underachiever who thinks he is funnier than he actually is, Matt dreams of becoming a famous comedian and it is only through the prodding of his girlfriend Abby (Lauren Ambrose) that he gets the ball rolling. Abby is smart, happy, grounded and has a solid career. Her only possible fault could be her choice in men.
In the wake of his sister's wedding, Matt starts to feel the pressure not only from Abby but also from his odd-ball parents (James Rebhorn and Carol Kane) as to when he's going to tie the knot with her. Petrified at the idea of ever committing to anything, Matt begins to internalize his doubts and fears which are in turn externalized via sleepwalking. At first minor, the sleepwalking starts to get dangerous and even after agreeing with everyone to seek help, Matt blows it off.
Looking like an exact cross between Michael C. Hall and Mike Myers, Birbiglia is not what you would refer to as on-camera leading-man ready (which could be why he's a staple on NPR), but here it's a major plus. Plain-looking with some serious love handles, Matt is about as everyman as it gets which goes far in getting the audience to solidly root for him; even when he's doing stupid and inappropriate things.
As he gains more confidence through a series of low-paying gigs, Matt's humor eventually gets very funny mostly because he starts basing the material on his own life -- a wise move for any comic. While his career starts looking up, his relationship with Abby becomes increasingly more erratic and Matt's sleepwalking episodes reach critical mass.
Credit the four filmmakers for not taking the easy way out and delivering a tidy final act. This might not be ideal for some viewers but it does stay true to the spirit of the story. For anyone who has ever been confused and/or lost (and that would be everyone), "Sleepwalk with Me" lets you know you're not alone. It might even make you feel better about not being perfect. (IFC)