One night in Walla Walla, Washington, stand-up comic Mike Birbiglia had a thoroughly interesting experience jumping through a second story window. The event was a result of sleepwalking, or more specifically rapid eye movement sleep behavior disorder, and he required 33 stitches in his leg. This and presumably other minor instances of sleepwalking became the motivation for a one-man Off-Broadway show called Sleepwalk with Me, whose successes were then translated to a similarly titled autobiography.
But when you have the option to go the full nine yards, why not take it? Finally, Sleepwalk with Me became a film that would premiere at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival and earn the Best of NEXT Audience Award. Between a long-running theatrical production, a New York Times bestseller and an acclaimed independent film, it’s hard to imagine a more impressive triple threat – especially when it all comes from the exact same material. But what sort of opportunities does film offer that the other two mediums can’t? Not only is Sleepwalk with Me Birbiglia’s invitation to catch a glimpse of these madcap scenarios, but also it’s a journey for him to test the limits of what he can achieve cinematically and how differently he can share his story.
The set up for the film version of Birbiglia’s story is much the same as his theatrical production, at least I assume. The film begins with the comedian driving down the road as he breaks the fourth wall to narrate his quest towards healthy living, and every now and then, the portion of the narrative depicting the past is interrupted to bring the audience back to this opening framework. Towards the end of the picture, Birbiglia’s character, Matt Pandamiglio, openly admits to an intentional meta narrative structure a la “When I set out to make this film” – I assume he would have done something in a similar vein with his one-man show.
It’s an odd choice considering the title of the material is already encouraging us to take part in this voyage, but it adds to the film’s offbeat charm. In fact, these breaks between past and present storylines are never quite indicative of any formal story structure, and much of the narrative progression seems an intentional mess. Pacing inconsistencies abound whenever Birbiglia is switching up between depictions of hectic life on the road, surrealistic dream sequences and meditations on the extensive personal and physical harms of denial. It takes some getting used to, even in a film already so short, but the revelations that we reach with Birbiglia are eye-opening enough that we perceive these inherent flaws as endearing.
It helps that the film is quite funny, too. Even though it uses a number of scenes where Birbiglia’s Pandamiglio – say that ten times fast – performs a stand-up routine, not all of the humor engages with us as if it were a part of his act. It’s an intriguing combination of explicit stand-up and the implicit extraction of punch lines into something more organic through a keen eye for realism, which seems strange for a movie of this caliber. Throughout the picture, it seems Birbiglia is telegraphing for us the inevitable, and though the conclusions are heartbreaking, the comedy tells us that hope hasn’t been excluded from those inevitabilities.
Though his material is deeply personal, Birbiglia’s usage of it across a number of platforms sees him engaging in more universal concepts like anxiety about one’s place, the future, fears of commitment, etc. Because even though a comic’s purpose is to tell funny stories or make witty observations, the primary goal across the board of stand-up genres and styles is to connect with the audience, and he’s done very well accomplishing that here.
I mean, I guess they wouldn’t have given Sleepwalk with Me an Audience Award if didn’t. That would have been awkward for a whole host of reasons.