Mike Birbiglia, the writer, director and star of the semi-autobiographical film “Sleepwalk With Me,” shines with such an unpretentious glow of likability that it’s easy to see why he is so well received as a comedian. While comics like Daniel Tosh and Dane Cook rely on jokes about abuse and national tragedies to earn a quick laugh, Birbiglia proves comedians do not need to be crude to be good at their jobs.
For that reason, “Sleepwalk” is a strong, witty film that makes the most of Birbiglia’s many talents. “Sleepwalk” is based on Birbiglia’s own life, though in the film he plays a man named Matt Pandamiglio. Pandamiglio cannot escape his dead-end job bartending at a comedy club, where he serves and watches comedians, only dreaming of joining them on stage. Unfortunately, he is not very funny. To make matters worse, his girlfriend, Abby (Lauren Ambrose), is pressuring him to commit to a future that does not interest him.
Pandamiglio’s dissatisfaction with his life suddenly becomes more complicated when he develops REM sleep behavior disorder, a type of sleepwalking so extreme that he jumps out of a window. The scene may sound goofy, if not for the fact that it is based on Birbiglia’s real-life leap out of a window while sleepwalking.
Though it plays a major role in the film, Pandamiglio’s dangerous sleepwalking habit is not the most interesting story element. Rather, his desperate struggle to make a career out of comedy is what provides “Sleepwalk’s” captivating and insightful look into a business that is actually quite depressing behind its mask of laughter. “Sleepwalk” might be a truly remarkable film if it were a full-out drama instead of “comedy-drama.”
Nonetheless, “Sleepwalk” is a film about comedy, and it embraces this notion. The film features cameos from notable comedians like Kristen Schaal (“30 Rock”) and Alex Karpovsky (“Girls”). They are all entertaining, but none can match Birbiglia. He brings an honesty and sincerity to Pandamiglio’s character so that when he heckles a member of the audience during one of his first stand-up gigs, he apologizes immediately. When a group of college students compliment Pandamiglio after a particularly drab performance, the audience feels happy for him.
“Sleepwalk” aims for more than laughs. It hopes to inspire and it greatly succeeds. The film spends too much time on its least compelling ideas — like Matt’s sleepwalking and his romantic relationship — but at least they all combine to create a world that is so enjoyable and unlike anything that Daniel Tosh and Dane Cook could ever dream to accomplish.
A version of this story appeared in the Aug. 26 print edition. Jeremy Grossman is film editor. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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