Sleepwalk With Me
This much is obvious about comedian Mike Birbiglia: The guy knows how to brush off trauma. After taking a leap through a second-story window of a motel while sleepwalking – a jump that landed him in a hospital with the diagnosis of a rare, dangerous sleep disorder – Birbiglia didn’t lick his wounds. He worked.
The incident, which nearly killed him, became fodder for his burgeoning career as a comic storyteller. In a segment on This American Life, during a critically acclaimed off-Broadway run, and even in the pages of a bestselling memoir, Birbiglia related his plate-glass hurdle to the waning days of a terminally ill relationship that was sabotaged by his overwhelming immaturity. Broadly put, that semiconscious swan dive shaped Birbiglia – physically, artistically, commercially – into the man he is today. And now he’s put it all on film.
Of course, a thin wall of fiction borders reality in Sleepwalk With Me. Gone is Mike Birbiglia, baby-faced aspiring comic; say hello to “Matt Pandamiglio,” an aspiring comic with a baby face. Matt loves Abby (Lauren Ambrose), as he has since their college years, but she’s ready for a mature relationship. She wants marriage. She wants kids. She wants to build a life – an adult life – with him. While Matt is pleasant and boyishly charming, husband and father he is not. (He compares loving her to eating “pizza-flavored ice cream.”) He’s an adult baby, content at suckling his status quo.
Although Sleepwalk With Me candidly inspects how that immaturity can sour a relationship, it’s no stranger to flaws of its own. Birbiglia, who also directed and co-wrote the film, can’t (or won’t) escape his self-centered trappings as a monologist. Consider this: Sleepwalk With Me is the product of thousands of hours Birbiglia spent shaping, editing and performing this story for an audience. It’s been part of his professional life for years, and his personal life for magnitudes longer. He knows every beat and turn of what happens. He’s tailored the story to convey emotions for the ideal comedic and dramatic effects. But, it’s still his story. These are only his emotions. What about everyone else?
Even Birbiglia recognizes this. Before one particularly scummy moment, an older, wiser Matt turns to the camera with an appeal from beyond the fourth wall: “Remember: You’re on my side.” This aside – apart from being one of the funniest, strongest ties between Sleepwalk and its patron saint, Woody Allen – signals an unexpected empathy for a woman he loved but to whom he wasn’t prepared to commit. (It’s ironic, sure, but it’s empathy all the same.) Birbiglia is acknowledging the pain he caused, critiquing his own story with a reminder that it’s not the only story. If you’ve ever hurt someone – I mean, really tore someone’s heart out – you understand how profoundly significant this moment can be. It transcends solipsism.
Sleepwalk With Me is strongest at these moments, when Matt’s passion for comedy reaches detente with compassion for the people he’s hurt. The Pandamiglio facade falls, leaving in its place a real, tender sorrow about the cost of adulthood. A heart was broken, a relationship splintered, and the man who caused it must grapple with that. Now, it’s a part of his story.
Sleepwalk With Me is a sly, funny movie, rife with Mike Birbiglia’s familiar brand of charming neurosis. Nevertheless, his real accomplishment isn’t making us laugh. It’s skewering himself when he knows we won’t.