In his cinematic debut, comedian Mike Birbiglia takes the audience on a journey that explores his transformation as an individual and comedic artist. Birbligia, who has made a run on Broadway in a one man show and appeared on NPR’s This American Life and The Moth Podcast, brings his story to the big screen in Sleepwalk With Me. The film tells the tale of Birbiglia’s cumbersome entrance into comedy that runs parallel to a failing relationship and the comedian’s coping with an extreme sleeping disorder. If you are familiar with Birbiglia from the radio or his shows you will recognize many of the stories told here but the interpretation in film adds a fresh layer to his epic on comedy and elusive topic of contemporary romance.
To begin we see Birbiglia the bartender, struggling as a comedian both professionally and creatively. Desperate to succeed in the shadow of an overbearing father, Birbiglia gets his break at the hands of a talent agent who sets him up with very low paying gigs scattered across the Eastern Seaboard. His hunger drives him on, forcing him to neglect his longtime girlfriend and himself through his denial of his sleep disorder, but success is still evasive because his material is stale. The turning point arrives when he begins to speak frankly about his life, his woman and his sleeping disorder.
Once he ditches the jokes and starts being honest the audience can begin to respond. Birbiglia is naturally awkward but relatable, his written comedy isn’t that funny but his stories are fantastic and his honest, depreciating delivery is enchanting. In the process of his comedic transformation Birbiglia becomes alienated from the love of his life, and in his denial of their parting ways proposes marriage to patch things up. This predictably fails, leaving Birbiglia alone to finally face the roots of his destructive sleeping habits and the realities of his relationship.
In the film Birbiglia uses several devices to construct his narrative. At times he addresses the camera directly, frankly attempting to explain himself to the audience and setting up the following scenes. The majority of the film comprises these set-ups acted out by Birbiglia, playing himself, and a dynamic cast of characters. Finally, we are allowed to enter the hectic and dangerous territory of his sleep disorder—cinematically the most compelling element of the film—and see how his bizarre imagination creates situations that are treacherous when lived out in reality.
Despite the title of the film, sleepwalking plays a minor role compared to Birbiglia’s struggle with comedy and his relationship, with one flourishing as the other falls apart. The resulting story ends up providing surprising insight on the necessary sacrifices required to achieve one’s goals and the finely blurred lines between love and romantic maintenance.
The film speaks strongly to the state of modern love and offers a very fresh look at relationships. There is no real conclusion, just a description of experience that points out the absurdities of romance and let’s the audience make their own resolutions. Produced in partnership with Ira Glass, the film itself feels like an extreme labor of love with clear passion and energy applied in every element. While very entertaining it is clear that this, like all of Birbiglia’s projects, is a therapeutic exercise for the comedian, another step in processing his rise to notoriety and his personal life experience.
Premiering 24 August 2012, this film is definitely worth checking out and is an exceptional example of how a compelling story, great cinematography and dedication can make independent cinema shine.