Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Sleepwalk with Me: A Comedian Sleepwalks into a Bar

A stand-up comic is having relationship trouble.  Of course, this is a good thing, because he can use it in his act and brother, he could use the material.  Yet, he will get even more mileage out of his little somnambulism habit.  Adapted from his one-man stage show for the kind of big art-house screen, Mike Birbiglia’s Sleepwalk with Me (trailer here) opens this Friday in New York.

Mike Pandamiglio, as Birbiglia’s character is transparently known, only has one thing going for him.  Abbey, his college girlfriend, still has not lost patience with his sorry excuse for a life.  He tends bar at a comedy club and is occasionally allowed to stick up the stage for a few minutes.  Everyone assumes they will eventually get married, more or less including themselves.  Yet, when a dotty old agent in the Broadway Danny Rose tradition starts booking him on a string low rent one-nighters, Pandamiglio begins to rethink his career, in a good way, and more ambiguously, his longtime relationship.  That leads to stress, which in turn stimulates his latent sleepwalking tendency.  The upside is this gives him some good stories.

Indeed, Sleepwalk is consistently funny, rather skillfully mixing smart and dumb humor.  Birbiglia’s likable loser persona translates quite well to the flat screen.  Not since Carson’s heyday has anyone gotten as many laughs out of jokes that bomb (from us, not his on-screen audiences).  He also opens up the story very effectively, with the collaborative help of his brother Joe, Ira Glass of the retractable This American Life (where Birbiglia is a regular contributor), and his stage director Seth Barrish.  Even his periodic breaking of the fourth wall works in context, rather than feeling like an artifact of its theatrical roots.

Birbiglia also has some hilarious support from Wittenberg University alumnus James Rebhorn as his domineering father Frank, as well as comedian Marc Maron, who is probably funnier here in little more than a cameo than he has been since maybe the Clinton administration.  Even the voice of pioneering sleep researcher (and onetime jazz musician) Dr. William C. Dement gets laughs, at his own expense.  The only real weak spot is Lauren Ambrose, who is a rather pedestrian presence as the ever indulgent Abby.

While the dream sequences are a bit derivative, Sleepwalk really works so well because of the ways it subverts rom-com conventions.  It is not headed towards the neatly prepackaged conclusion one might anticipate, which is cool.  Indeed, the messiness is definitely part of its charm.  One of the best straight forward, non-genre domestic indie comedies in years, Sleepwalk with Me is recommended for general audiences, well beyond its stage and NPR fanbase, when it opens this Friday (8/24) in New York at the IFC Center.