Mike Birbiglia’s journey to the silver screen isn’t your average one. A stand-up comedian by trade, he then branched out into theatre performing a one-man show based on his real-life battle with a sleeping disorder. The success of the show caught the attention of producer Ira Glass who invited Birbiglia onto his podcast ‘The Moth’ where he would become a regular contributor until eventually the two set about turning that autobiographical tale into Sleepwalk With Me – not only his first acting gig but also his debut in the directors chair.
All this may come as something of a surprise when watching this festival winning film (2012 Sundance NEXT Award) as Birbiglia seems so effortlessly natural on screen, easing us into his world with an address to camera, “This is a true story”. The need to justify its truth is an understandable one – you can imagine similar stories being dreamt up in a screenwriting lab in Hollywood furiously work shopped into an Adam Sandler vehicle. The fact that it wasn’t and these were, at one time, real events suffered by Birbiglia is no doubt the reason for it’s complete success in achieving the notes of authenticity apparent on screen.
Birbiglia stars as alter-ego Matt Pandamiglio, an aspiring stand-up who’s minutes behind the mic pale in comparison to the ones he spends serving drinks and mopping toilets at the local comedy club. Coupled with a relationship with girlfriend Abby (Six Feet Under’s Lauren Ambrose) that is coming under the scrutiny one suffers after 8 years and no proposal and the pressure facing Matt starts to take it’s toll, manifesting in bouts of sleepwalking which occur with increasing severity.
These aren’t your average zombie-walking eyes closed affairs you often catch on screen, these nocturnal activities resemble the hallucinations of a drunk, all slurry vocals and imagined scenes which are both hilarious and dangerous. Pestered by his physician dad into examining his behaviour, Matt is diagnosed with REM sleep behaving disorder – a condition that involves the sufferer acting out his dreams, something not suited to the life on the road he stumbles upon after a chance meeting with an agent.
As his set becomes more in tune with his mounting problems his jokes finally start to hit the mark with audiences lapping up his truthful tales of a stuttering relationship and bizarre sleep patterns. The new found attention means more time away from home as Matt struggles to find the right balance of caring boyfriend and successful comic.
Balance is one thing Birbiglia doesn’t find as challenging as his on-screen persona, striking a chord with his delicate marriage of laughs and heart in a film you struggle to believe is a debut. His wry observations are incredibly well-observed and ring true of the commitment issues that plague a generation of young males unable to articulate their thoughts. It’s an incredibly honest look at modern relationships handled with originality and moments of hilarity and, while comparisons with Woody Allen are unfair at this point, Birbiglia makes a case for his to be the next career to succeed with inward-looking analysis and laugh out loud jokes. An exceptionally promising debut.