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'Sleepwalk With Me' a funny take on relationships

Posted: September 13, 2012 - 12:00am  |  Updated: September 13, 2012 - 7:15am
Mark Birbiglia co-stars in "Sleepwalk with Me" with Lauren Ambrose.   Photo courtesy of IFC Films
Photo courtesy of IFC Films
Mark Birbiglia co-stars in "Sleepwalk with Me" with Lauren Ambrose.

Comic Mike Birbiglia’s very funny one-man show about love, life on the stand-up circuit, sleepwalking and the perils of all three was a near-perfectly calibrated piece of theater that became an off-Broadway hit a few years ago. The comic’s conversational storytelling made all the players and their problems seem very real. The staging was unexpected, the timing exceptional.

Having seen the show on stage, I wondered if Birbiglia could morph the ideas into an equally funny movie. He hasn’t quite, but he’s come pretty close. Shot on a shoestring budget, “Sleepwalk With Me’s” transition from stage to screen primarily works because Birbiglia continues to carry the weight. The movie leans heavily on the comic’s quirky, self-deprecating style that made the original work so well.

The story itself is a familiar one in which Birbiglia plays nice-guy Matt, who can’t quite get the commitment thing right. The film opens with him behind the wheel of a decidedly uncool car, telling us how he came to be an underpaid, struggling stand-up with an impatient father (James Rebhorn), a flighty mother (Carol Kane) and an incredible girlfriend, Abby (Lauren Ambrose). It’s just the audience and Matt having a moment, so you know right away Birbiglia hasn’t left his stage influences completely behind.

Though he continues to break through that wall on occasion, for the most part “Sleepwalk” slips quickly into a more traditional blend of narration and scenes. We are taken back to the time when Abby and Matt get their first apartment together, which is, of course, the beginning of the end. Relationship pressures heat up after his sister gets engaged, then married. Friends start having babies; their babies need buddies. Tick, tick, tick — that’s an emotional bomb you’re hearing, not a biological clock.

As the screws tighten, Matt’s sleepwalking begins. It’s a disturbing variety where he is actually living out his nightmares, trying to kill the jackal in his dreams — an episode that leaves a trash can pretty much destroyed. It gets worse, and far more dangerous, as Abby and Matt’s 8-year relationship flounders.

Ambrose, who has been sorely missed since the regular injection of her fine acting on “Six Feet Under” ended, is as delightful as ever. Indeed one of the movie’s strengths is the way in which it manages to make Matt and Abby’s troubled romance interesting without a lot of conflict, a credit to Ambrose and Birbiglia’s ease with each other on screen. Thematically it is very relatable stuff — both parties are nice people who are simply wrong for each other.

One of the great pleasures of the film is watching a comic find his voice — the stony silences giving way to genuine laughter when he finds the right line. It’s certainly enough to keep Matt on the road, where a good gig will net him $150 if he’s lucky. The payoff for us is getting to meet a lot of other funny people that didn’t make it into the stage act.

To help make the move to a movie, the comic kept his Broadway team intact, starting with the decision to co-direct with the play’s Seth Barrish. For the script, Birbiglia, his brother Joe and Barrish got an assist from “This American Life’s” Ira Glass, also a producer on the project. The filmmakers have succeeded in giving the story more breathing room, allowing the characters Birbiglia first conjured up to take distinctive shape and form.

It is a very good ensemble overall and the movie is filled with terrific small turns by many of Birbiglia’s real-life funny friends, with Sondra James as his crusty agent Colleen a total hoot. On the family front, Rebhorn and Kane are excellent as Matt’s oil-and-water parents — the no-nonsense neurosurgeon dad wondering when his son will get a real job and mom forever coddling in endearing ways.

Ironically the very thing that should have offered a world of visual possibilities — sleepwalking — is the one that doesn’t always work. By the end, though, they get it absolutely right, taking a giant leap of faith to make sure Matt’s world comes crashing down exactly as it should.

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