I was late, which in SXSW parlance means only 45 minutes early, to the first screening here of Mike Birbiglia’s Sleepwalk With Me. After barely making it into the screening, I searched for a seat at the Alamo Ritz as the “no talking or texting” PSA played on screen. An usher sat me down in the section reserved for filmmakers and their friends. I quickly dropped my things between a young woman and a gentleman in a zip-up sweathshirt, scrawled out a dinner order on a slip of paper (Alamo theaters are also full-service restaurants and I was starving) and turned to head to the bathroom. The be-sweatshirted gent seemed confused that I wanted to leave the theater even though the film was unspooling, but he pulled his knees back anyway. After expelling fluids in record time, I settled back into my seat and began watching all but the first minute of this deft comedy.
Sleepwalk With Me is the story of aspiring stand-up comedian Matt Pandamiglio, played by first-time director Birbiglia. He tends bar at a comedy club, taking the rare opportuities he gets to do sets when comics bail on their time slots. He has been with his girlfriend, Abby, played by Lauren Ambrose, since college and both she and Matt’s family are starting to wonder when things will move to the next, nuptial level. As his career slowly revs up, their relationship becomes strained. Oh, and Matt has a particularly rough disorder in which he sleepwalks and acts out the things he is dreaming about, often to violent effect.
The whole film is told in flashback from present-day Matt. This narrative conceit is lifted straight out of Woody Allen’s Annie Hall. The two films feel almost intertwined, as if Birbiglia wants to make his own version of it. Surpsingly, this doesn’t get in the way of the film’s own originality.
The director brings to the table an unfettered honesty. Pandamiglio’s comedy becomes funnier as he shares embarrassing tid bits about his personal life. The more he divulges, the more gigs he is able to book. This is a theme in films about any kind of artistic, especially comic, refinement. At some point, a comedian learns to stop being a spectator and become a raw nerve, an open book that invites his audience into his private, perhaps demented world. Sleepwalk With Me focuses on Matt’s move from the outside in, moving from a pew to the pulpit, as it were.
Much like a young(er) Woody Allen, Birbiglia is learning the tools he has at hand, sometimes with a foolhardy ambition. He executes a ridiculous long take that feels out of place when compared to the film’s otherwise straightforward form. There is an argument for its narrative necessity as it does precede a major plot point that requires spatial understanding, but it still smacks of, “Hey, what if we just did an insanely difficult shot here?” That isn’t necessarily a bad attitude to have. After all, Allen played fast and loose with cinematic conventions with Annie Hall.
I don’t want to mislead you into believing that Mike Birbiglia is the next Woody Allen. Sleepwalk With Me feels like the product of a student of Allen’s, one who took away the specifics of his style but not the knowledge that led him to become a modern master. There is a lot to love in this film, but it would be nothing without the filmmaker’s willingness to share a very personal story. Will Birbiglia be able to tackle someone else’s tale? We’ll see.
Oh, and about my missing the first few minutes of the film. When the lights came up, someone from the festival went up on stage to announce Mike Birbiglia for a Q & A. The man to my right hopped out of his seat and sauntered down the aisle, walked on stage and took the mic. I sat next to Mike Birbiglia the whole time and had no idea. I was wondering why he wasn’t laughing at any of the jokes as I chuckled my head off. Sorry about running out, Mike, I really had to pee. Great work, though.