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“Sleepwalk with Me”: Fumbling Towards A Dream

October 7, 2012

I went to see “Sleepwalk with Me” today. And even though I missed the beginning because I was accidentally in the theater where “The Master” was playing, I am so glad I did.

As “Sleepwalk with Me” begins (or ok, honestly, five minutes in. I can’t give you anything on the first five minutes) comedian Mike Birbiglia is hardly a comedian, yet. He’s a bartender who occasionally gets to do five minutes of standup when another comedian is late. He’s also in a live-in relationship with his college girlfriend, and she’s thinking a lot about marriage and babies. He is not. He’s thinking about comedy, and he’s also occasionally sleepwalking—or more accurately, physically acting out his dreams while unconscious. It’s an interesting metaphor.

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This is the true story of Birbiglia’s early years, but it’s been slightly fictionalized. Birbiglia plays a version of himself named “Matt Pandamiglio,” and his girlfriend Abby is played by the beautiful and excellent Lauren Ambrose (“Six Feet Under” fans? Are you out there? IT’S CLAIRE). Ever since college she has supported his dream and pushed him forward, and she’s beside him when he manages to talk to an agent while working at the bar one night. That meeting sends Matt on a string of gigs that takes him all over the country in his dad’s beat-up car, and we watch as, on the one hand, Matt really BECOMES a comedian, and on the other, Matt and Abby really fall out of love.

To the first point, it’s fascinating to watch the process of Matt’s talent forming. At first, it’s hardly evident that he has any—as his agent puts it, “You’re not really that funny.” He tells jokes about cookie monster’s eating disorder in an uncertain voice, and there’s no way to see that the guy is any good at all. But on the road, distanced from his girlfriend and his life, he realizes there’s material there. “I’m waiting to get married until I’m sure that nothing else good is going to happen in my life,” he says, and the crowd roars. He straightens up a little. Slowly, he’s becoming this thing that no one else could see he really was.

To the second point, it is also fascinating to watch the relationship struggle. Nearly from the beginning, it’s clear as day that neither Abby or Matt REALLY believes that they are still supposed to be together. But it’s habit, and they don’t want to hurt each other, and the obvious, truthful words seem way too horrible to say. So they plan a wedding instead of breaking up. It’s insane, but feels completely real. This is what humans do.

The sleep disorder stuff serves as a measure of the movie’s escalation. As Matt becomes both more successful at comedy and more totally screwed as far as the choices he’s making with Abby, his sleep episodes become more and more dangerous, until he finally really hurts himself.

In the end, he’s a comedian who tells this story onstage: a fully-formed guy. It’s awesome. At the beginning of the movie, in a flashback to Abby and Matt’s relationship when it was just starting, Matt says in voice-over that everyone believes deep down that they have a secret special skill, and falling in love is like finding someone who says: hey, I think you have a secret special skill! And then the skill is outed, and you foster it together. “Sleepwalk with Me” is about the process of believing in that skill and letting it grow while letting go of the person who first helped you identify it.

I haven’t said yet that the movie is funny: The movie is funny. Very funny, laugh-out-loud funny. But that’s not the focus; it’s more of a happy side effect. The movie is sweet and thought-provoking and honest. You should see it.

Get into it with me and Birbiglia on Nuclear Salad.

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