Mike Birbiglia’s “Sleepwalk with Me” is structured like a standard narrative feature, but that’s just a thin veil covering what it actually is: a personal essay. Anyone familiar with Birbiglia’s popular stand-up act knows that he has trouble avoiding the titular behavior of the film–he slumbers in a sleeping-bag zipped up to his neck, wearing mittens so he can’t unzip it, to prevent serious self-harm–and given his protagonist’s similarly goofy name, Matt Pandamiglio, one can assume that the rest is borrowed from real life, as well. Thus, it’s easy to forgive the uncritical light in which “Sleepwalk with Me” presents Matt, because the character represents a rare treat for viewers: an authentic portrait of what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes.
Despite Birbiglia’s recent rockstar success–“Sleepwalk with Me” sold out its entire first weekend of shows at New York City’s IFC Center and continues to perform well around the country–his story is relatable and down-to-earth, making the walk in his shoes more of a humanistic experience than one might expect. The film begins before Birbiglia ascended to popularity in stand-up, when he worked as a bartender in a comedy club, only getting to perform his then-dreadful routine when an act didn’t show up. Further, as the movie would have it–one can only assume that this, too, is autobiographical–Birbiglia’s personal life was just as unsatisfying as his professional life, belabored by a stagnant, non-committal relationship with years-long girlfriend Abby (Lauren Ambrose).
That is to say, Birbiglia’s–I mean, Matt’s–story begins very similarly that of any other 20-something-year-old male: driven toward a dream (in his case, success as a stand-up), but filled with malaise and anxiety over the dream’s lack of tangibility. In this sense, the film feels more like a mumblecore effort than the work of a comedian, which is not surprising given that Birbiglia was credited as a creative consultant on Lynn Shelton’s “Your Sister’s Sister” but is appreciable nonetheless.
In fact, Birbiglia and his co-screenwriters (who include Ira Glass of “This American Life”) are remarkably restrained in their use of out-and-out comedy. Even the sleepwalking sequences, which find Matt goofily battling an imaginary jackal and hopping on pieces of furniture thinking that they are Olympic medal podiums–he suffers from “REM Behavioral Disorder,” which causes him to act out his dreams–say so much about the man’s relatable neuroses that their surface humor is secondary.
As “Sleepwalk with Me” progresses, Matt begins to score nightly stand-up gigs with the help of an agent, but this does not cause the character to lose his relatability as a struggling young artist because the work is even less glamorous than bar-tending. Matt drives to remote venues all over the Northeast, often spending more on gas and lodging than the gigs pay, performing to just handfuls of people at a time. So many comics talk about the pains of developing a career in the business, but audiences have never had the process illuminated in this much detail. For Matt’s first gig, he is hired to be the emcee of a college lip-synching competition with two contestants and about eight people in the audience. The viewer knows that Birbiglia had to have experienced something very similar in real life, because you just can’t make such scenarios up.
“Sleepwalk with Me” is not only a compelling portrait of life as a beginning stand-up, but finding one’s voice as an artist. Matt eventually realizes that the richest material is that which comes from his own life, so he begins to write more jokes about his dead-end relationship. (These not only go over better with audiences, they also stress-amplify his sleepwalking, which comes to a head in a climactic sequence that nicely services the running metaphor.) Clearly, Birbiglia made the same realization about his own work, because this is one of the most intensely personal films in recent memory. If he continues to make movies, he should hire a more experienced director to help him out with the aesthetics, but small technical shortcomings aside, “Sleepwalk with Me” is a treasure — spirited, empathetic, and even poignant.