By Carl Kozlowski
Some people really can “make lemonade out of lemons,” as the saying goes, by turning life’s setbacks into successes. Mike Birbiglia is such a person.
As the co-writer, director and star of the new indie movie Sleepwalk with Me, Birbiglia has managed to bring his own bizarre, yet sweetly funny story of battling an extreme sleepwalking disorder to the nation’s movie screens. The comedian first shared his story on National Public Radio’s This American Life, in 2008 before turning it into a solo storytelling show that had a long-running stint on off-Broadway and following that up with a best-selling memoir by the same name.
When he announced he was turning his show into a movie, it was expected that Birbiglia was merely going to film his stage show as an entertaining documentary, with some backstage footage interspersed. But in fact, he’s taken a much more ambitious path to the silver screen, converting his life story into a genuinely well-crafted, terrifically acted film that recalls the early, more personal films of Woody Allen.
The story opens with Birbiglia addressing an audience about his life as a college graduate whose family wanted him to follow a traditional career as a doctor or lawyer, even though he wanted to be a comedian. He also shows us his girlfriend of eight years, Abby (Lauren Ambrose), who clearly sees him as Mr. Right even as he’s slowly realizing he may never be ready to marry her, due to his real dreams of telling jokes on the road.
As it portrays Mike’s thinly veiled alter ego, Matt Pandamiglia, driving to small towns and working his way up the ladder from college shows and bars to legitimate clubs, Sleepwalk captures the addictive allure of performing comedy better than any film before it. Viewers feel Matt’s initial thrilling sense of freedom and wonderment over every little thing about his free hotel rooms and making a mere $100 for a show, but he also nails the gnawing boredom of constant travel and the disappointment of only making $100 for a show after six hours of driving to a gig.
Eventually, Mike has to grapple with his two worlds: the stifling stability of impending domestic life as a husband and wage slave, or the thrilling uncertainty of life as an artist. As his stress grows, so too does the severity of his disorder, leading him into a string of dangerous and bizarre situations.
Having been a professional comic myself for the past 15 years, driving on the same kinds of trips to nowhere and even once helping Birbiglia get some stage time at a Chicago club, I can attest that he hits the bulls-eye with every funny and painful detail. But the story’s real hook is Birbiglia’s severe sleepwalking disorder, a condition that grew so out of control that he made national news by jumping out of a second-story hotel room to escape a nuclear missile that was heading directly toward him in a dream.
My life has a strangely strong parallel to Birbiglia’s on that level as well, as I spent a decade battling sleep apnea so severe it bordered on narcolepsy. Birbiglia captures the terror and disorientation of sleep disorders perfectly, particularly the mix of darkly funny things that occur from having such an odd condition and the oppressive and wearying fear that it can knock you out at any moment and possibly kill you.
Through it all, Birbiglia maintains a perfect blend of humor and drama, effectively bringing his tale to vibrant life via a script co-written by his This American Life mentor, Ira Glass. And it’s a small miracle he can draw such spot-on performances, particularly from veteran character actors James Rebhorn and Carol Kane, who portray Matt’s parents.
With a follow-up storytelling project, My Sister’s Boyfriend, already itself a hit show and book, Birbiglia appears to be one sleeping giant we can be thankful woke up.