What is it you really want out of life?
Sleepwalk With Me, a 2012 indie comedy written, directed by, and starring standup comedian Mike Birbiglia (it’s based on his one-man off Broadway show), and from the producers of This American Life, attempts to answer that question, obscured as it is by expectation (our own and others), ambition, need, and all manner of basic human drivers.
Granted it may sound like the sort of deep, impenetrable existential question that could sink a movie, especially one driven by droll, insightful comedy without a trace.
But Mike Birbiglia manages to successfully reach into the marrow of his character’s life – he plays a barman, Matt Pandamiglio, at a comedy club yearning for a career as the sort of stand up comedian he sees performing before him nightly – and that of his longtime girlfriend, Abby (the accomplished Lauren Ambrose, Six Feet Under, who shines in the role), without once sacrificing its inherent comic DNA.
It is one of the funniest movies I have seen in quite some time, that remembers it’s perfectly acceptable to laugh with your mind engaged.
In fact, it makes the comedy richer, deeper, and far more profound and affecting that it might otherwise be.
The road that Mike and Abby go down is not, as you might expect, an easy journey, peppered as it is by the couple’s need to protect each other’s feelings, and desire to maintain the delusion that everything is exactly as they want it to be, when it becomes readily apparent that it is nothing of the sort.
And it’s a journey that they undertake without really meaning to, when Mike’s dream of becoming a stand up comedian finally looks like becoming something of a reality.
It’s also one complicated by the fact that Matt, in denial about just about everything in his life, and unable to articulate what he really wants, finds his percolating anxiety about these things manifesting itself in increasingly active – in one memorable scene he jumps out of a hotel window in the middle of dreaming he is being pursued by spies and a rather precisely-targeted missile – sleepwalking incidents.
Disruptive these vivid, almost-too-real dreams, he is also in denial about the Rapid Eye Movement (REM) Behaviour Disorder that begins to define his life, despite his attempts to brush his own concerns about it and that of Abby, and most hilariously his own over-zealous father who books him sleep clinic time and gives him a book by a noted sleep disorder expert, that he co-reads along with his son.
It’s an exhaustively long list of things to pretend are fine when they’re patently not, and they begin to take their toll on Mike, and his relationship with Abby, when a chance meeting with a low level but well connected stand up comedy agent, Colleen, results in Mike being booked at all sorts of college and local corporate events all across New York and surrounding states.
It’s not a glamorous life by any standard and Mike initially finds himself struggling to stretch his “11 or so minutes of material” across a full half hour or more set, until he belatedly realises in a chance conversation with another comic offstage one night that his own life is ripe with comic possibility.
Without meaning to, and afraid to tell Abby he is mining their life for his stand up routine, he begins in hilariously observant fashion to examine what is driving him and funnel those insights into an increasingly funny and popular stage show.
After a worryingly shaky start as a stand up comic (one he refuses to abandon despite its less than auspicious beginnings since this is the one thing he does know he wants from life … maybe) he is finally making his audiences laugh uproariously, and without meaning to, engaging in a form of self-therapy.
One which raises all sorts of questions, which he begins answering at last, without profound ramifications for himself and Abby and everyone in their orbit.
Insightful and dramatically rich as it is, revealing the true extent of the central characters’ lives in tune with Matt’s painfully and slowly realised revelations about his own life, Sleepwalk With Me is also delightfully funny.
Mike Birbiglia’s material, drawn from his own real life experiences with REM Behaviour Disorder, is rich with the sort of humour that doesn’t so much make you laugh out loud, although yes that happens, as it makes you smile in ever-widening grins at the truth of all his observations.
It is pure comedy – making you laugh even as it makes you think … and think and think.
While you won’t walk out of the theatre with your life a perfectly examined richer-and-deeper one – let’s be honest there’s only so much a movie, even one as perfectly realised as Sleepwalk With Me can do – you will likely still be laughing and thinking about what you really want out of life for quite some time afterwards.