Sleepwalk With Me
Sleepwalk With Me opens in a very interesting way with Writer/Director/Star and sort of Protagonist Mike Birbiglia turning from the toll booth at which he has stopped to drop in some coins towards the camera that is sitting in his passenger seat and speaks to it, telling it and us through it that now would be a great time to turn off our phones if we hadn’t already because the story is about to start and there’s nothing ruder than getting or receiving a text or call during a movie; a statement that he then strengthens by telling a terrific and truthful little joke about a time he was once in a cinema watching a movie like you are.
Breaking the fourth wall is nothing new for cinema, nor is meta all that meaningful on its own but the way in which Birbiglia goes about it here manages to be both. With these comments, and all the others that come in the car-based interludes, he isn’t simply acknowledging the existence of the audience and the reminding them of the fact that this is a film they are watching but actually putting himself on our side of the stage as well as on the center of it. The tale told in Sleepwalk is quite clearly that of his own life, his own successes and failures, and the protagonist he plays himself in all but a few letters so there is a poignancy in the way that he watches the story he wrote; it reflects the sort of wistful longing and self-reflection that is usually saved for a diary entry or suicide note and this makes watching the picture a potently personal experience.
I mentioned that these traits are not theoretically all that new and the first example that comes to mind of where else they have been used is of course in the works of Woody Allen; with Sleepwalk Birbiglia reapplies the Allen-esque meta-irreverence of Annie Hall and the like on a modern scale and in a modern setting, imbuing the tricks with the malaise and over-clarity inherent in what we know as modern life. Like most of Allen’s movies Sleepwalk mostly tells the story of a self-deprecating, schlumpy man and the virtuous vision of a woman that he nevertheless managed to make his partner and the highs and lows that they face while living life in the entertainment industry of New York. It’s a familiar story yes, but only because its such a universal one for the certain subset of people in which me and Mike both reside.
The way that he tells it though, structurally rather than on a scene-by-scene basis, is reminiscent of what another comedy great Louis C.K. does in his own almost autobiographical adventure Louie. Like most episodes of Louie what Mike Birbiglia did here with his script is a natural extension of his humorist roots; its the storytelling of a stand-up routine being shown rather than told, we see the actions and setting rather than having them described to us and the punchlines are our own to interpret. Though like Louie he assists this through the aforementioned narration and some intentionally shocking stand up; both of which worked far better in theory than practice. There are certainly laughs to be found in a failing comedian but after a while we can’t help but want to hear some more strong jokes; skill being far more entertaining than self-deprecation.
“Before I tell you this next part, remember that you’re on my side,” Mike remarks before recounting one of his lowest moments in the story. I was on his side but I couldn’t shake the feeling that the Mike sitting next to me watching along wasn’t; he, along with Lauren Ambrose, gives the girlfriend character as much, if not more credit than his own. A greatly noble gesture given that his role is very much the same one that he plays in real life, both on stage and off, whereas hers is that of his ex-girlfriend but one that only adds to the strained self-loathing that is seen throughout the film. Most of the time I find the way that actors direct themselves to be slightly disturbing in its aggrandizement but here I felt that Birbiglia over-corrected somewhat into the opposite path.
There is though a reason for this, Mike wasn’t simply slightly anti-social like Allen and Louie but mentally ill in a strange but serious way. All the stress, self-loathing and social pressures that he faces during the day come out at night in the form of a REM sleep disorder – strong dreams that his body acts out in real life – and though it is never the focus of the film this illness gives a fascinating twist to the genre; giving us some great gags, great insight into the character’s consciousness and displaying directly Mike’s fear of conflict.
This subconscious tick is enough to subvert all of the samey feeling tropes into something that feels fresh and also lends it a mature subtext more befitting of the characters complexity. Though it is written by, directed by, inspired by, starring and based on the life of a comedian Sleepwalk With Me isn’t a comedy in the traditional sense; it’s as frightening as it is funny, as hard to watch as it is hilarious. So although it is at times too much in the middle-ground between comedy and drama and too messy to really move there is a spark of something new here in his debut that makes Sleepwalk worth watching and Birbiglia one to watch in the future – I daresay it stands up pretty well against Pootie Tang and Take the Money and Run – especially now that he has gained some confidence from the clear success of this first feature.