Mike Birbiglia has gotten a surprising amount of mileage out of telling the story of his early days in stand-up comedy and the sleep disorder that forced him to take stock of his life. First, it was material for his act. Then he did an episode of NPR’s “This American Life” based on that material. Then he developed it into a book. Now, based on that book and all the other previous versions, he’s finally turned it into a movie. He stars in the film, he wrote the script with his brother Joe, “This American Life” producer Ira Glass, and his co-director Seth Barrish, and the result is intensely personal, a laser-accurate look at the self-imposed pressures of a life in show business.
When I first heard Birbiglia was making a film version of the story, I assumed it was going to be a documentary of sorts. It isn’t, though. Instead, it’s a slightly fictionalized version of the events he lived through, and while much of it is funny, I think it’s ultimately a small-scale character drama, well-observed, and Birbiglia reveals himself as more than “just” a comic presence.
Birbiglia stars as Matt Pandamiglio, looking back on the early days of his stand-up comedy career and the relationship he had at that same time with Abby (Lauren Ambrose), a girl he almost married. Birbiglia is a chronic sleepwalker, but it went from a quirky affectation to a life-threatening hazard, and the film traces the evolution of his problem while also offering up some incisive ideas about what caused him to react that way in the first place. The film works best as a piece about anxiety, and Birbiglia draws on his own experience to effectively place the viewer in the position of a struggling comic who is working out his voice while also trying to decide if he is or isn’t going to marry his longtime girlfriend. I think he captures the horrifying flop-sweat feeling of performing live comedy in a way that few films have managed, and this is a topic that many directors have circled over the years. I think Bob Fosse was exceptional at capturing dance on film, but I think his sensibility was all wrong for “Lenny,” and I never felt like that film had any particular handle on the strange pathological drive to put yourself out there, naked and vulnerable, that not only made Lenny Bruce great but that also contributed to his downfall. Birbiglia does an excellent job of capturing both the awful sensation of bombing and the amazing elation of connecting to an audience, and he does a great job of illustration how inspiration works for a comic.
It’s a very small film, but it is remarkable for the way it honestly handles the material and the tricky tone that Birbiglia manages to navigate. I feel like having Ira Glass onboard as a co-writer and a producer helped, because Glass has done a great job over the years of creating a very particular voice for “This American Life,” and he has a fair amount of experience crafting personal material into something with a strong structured feel. Andrew Hollander’s score and Adam Beckman’s photography both give Birbiglia a big leg up for a first-time feature director, and even if he doesn’t end up making more films, he’s done a wonderful job of capturing what I’m guessing is the final version of this story. It may have been hell to live through, but Birbiglia has spun suffering into gold.
“Sleepwalk With Me” opens in limited release on Friday, then begins a platform release in the weeks that follow.