In the opening shot of Sleepwalk with Me, Matt Birbiglia, playing Matt Pandamiglio, looks right at the camera and says he’s going to tell us a story that he insists is true. Then he prefaces those words with a joke about people walking up to him and asking, “Was that true?” in the most obnoxious way. This opening monologue sets the tone for a film that could be described as an autobiographically inspired, fictional feature debut. Is it true? Who cares. Sleepwalk with Me is a film that works well in the comedic moments, even if it falls a little short in the overall story.
Matt is dealing with some issues. He has a girlfriend of eight years recording marriage and baby shows. He’s slinging drinks at a comedy club instead of standing up on stage telling jokes and if that weren’t enough, he’s developed a sleepwalking problem.
It’s never really said why he’s suddenly walking around his apartment imagining laundry hampers as jackals and neck pillows as pizza neck pillows, but it’s pretty easy to understand Matt’s reached a phase in his life where an expected future isn’t what he wants. Another visit to his parent’s house, as well as his younger sister getting married, reinforce the notion of settling down, accepting life for what it is and being content.
“You say you’re going to go see the doctor, you don’t. You say you want to be a comedian, you’re a bartender. I mean pick a damn plan and stick with it,” says his father sternly. So Matt decides to give comedy more of an effort.
It’s not that he’s afraid of getting up in front of a crowd, he’s just eager for some material (Cookie Monster jokes eventually lose their appeal). But when a fellow comedian suggests he use real-life situations for inspiration, Matt finally hears laughs in the audience and moderate success quickly follows.
He finally begins to lead the life of a comic: Lonely car rides, smelly hotel rooms and fast-food every night. But more than just living his dream as a comedian, Matt is running away from a possible future with Abby.
Abby seems like a crucial character in the film as Matt’s girlfriend, but for the most part she exists only to periodically add drama to his life. The parents too seem like versions of characters: the conservatively-square father, the always-a-little-drunk mother acting as the counterpart.
These one-note characters as well as a third act that loses some steam when Matt reaches a crucial turning point in his life highlight a flawed but good film. The ending proves to be unexpected, but still a little underwhelming as laughter is replaced with a sudden desire to wrap up subplots quickly. At barely 80 minutes long, it’s as if the comedian was worried about running a set too long and felt the need to wrap it up.
But this is Birbiglia’s movie. As a comedian, he specializes in finely-timed jokes and it’s at these moments where the film shines. The self-deprecating humor, awkward interactions and impressive physical comedy during the sleepwalking scenes highlight Birbiglia as a comedian who can play both understated and showy.
Carrying a heavy load as director/writer/producer and star, Birbiglia showcases a real talent for storytelling as well. Mixing third-person scenes, creative dream sequences and fine camera work, Birbiglia’s feature-film debut has a lot of heart and creativity. In particular, a long tracking shot of him walking through a hotel while talking on the phone perfectly conveys his frustration with his life back home and his desire to run away from it permanently.
At its core Sleepwalk With Me is about accepting life’s failures and deciding whether to move on, or continue pursuing a dream and still be okay if things don’t work out. It’s refreshing to see a film where the star is someone you’ve never seen before. That sense of discovery endears us to this character. Sleepwalk with Me is a funny and charming comedy that’s appealing not only as an indie comedy, but as a showcase for a comedian you might not have seen before.
Sleepwalk with Me is currently playing at the Bijou and can be seen until Thursday, Oct. 4.