Less a review, more a reflection.
Sleepwalk With Me is an independent film by Mike Birbiglia with the collaboration of Ira Glass and This American Life. The story is a true one with a few artistic liberties taken to adapt it for the screen. Mike Birbiglia plays himself, only in the movie his name is Matt Pandamiglio. Present day Mike/Matt greets the audience while in the driver’s seat; we are his willing passengers. Throughout the film he tells the story of a long-term relationship with his girlfriend, Abby, the beginnings of his career as a comedian and his sleepwalking woes. Through this narrative he connects with the audience members who have ever been uncertain of something, who have been in transition, who have felt outside pressures to be something or do something other than what they really want. In other words, he connects with everyone.
Birbiglia is a stand-up comedian, and by “stand-up” I mean quality. Finding Truth in humor is a sacred thing (like, the truest Truth) and few actually achieve this. Though I haven’t heard or read a ton of his material, I suspect Birbiglia has found it, or has come awfully close several times.
He guides the viewer through the history of his relationship with Abby and we learn about how they started. For one thing, he pursued her relentlessly with little success until he asked her to go to church with him, admitting that he hadn’t been to church since he was a child. His reasoning was that even if the date went badly, maybe they’d at least get something out of the homily. Cut to the unsuspecting couple holding hands in a pew. Brilliant. To state the obvious, it’s funny because it’s a first date in a church between two people who don’t go to church. Admittedly, this is not a universal experience, but what is universal about it is the discomfort of knowing that you can’t not spend time with a certain person but without really knowing how to go about it, and then discovering the lengths that you will go to to make it happen. This move is an inspiration. Let’s all go to church.
Then he takes us through the feelings of an early relationship. According to Birbiglia/Pandamiglio, we all have a “secret special skill” that only we know about and starting a relationship goes like this:
Her: Hey! You have a secret special skill!
Him: I know! So do you!
Once again, brilliant. The simplicity, the truth, the humor. It’s almost too much to bear. This is clearly Birbiglia’s secret special skill. And if it’s not, then I have some questions.
This film’s major plot line is the trajectory of this very important, meaningful relationship, but it’s more than this. It’s about taking risks, about doing what you want, in spite of insecurities and concerns and anxieties. Because I have found myself on the lookout for opportunities to exercise assertiveness and exorcise uncertainty, doubt and insecurity, I found solace in Mike/Matt.
He is an aspiring comedian, working as bartender in a bar that sometimes has stand-up. He sells himself short a lot of the time. As he starts to finally put effort into his career, he takes shows that don’t pay particularly well, but it’s not about the money. It’s about getting out there and doing what he loves. As a viewer, I could feel his confidence growing and in a strange, non-condescending way, I was proud of him. At one show, he gets paid less than what he was told and he asks about this. The bar manager explains the money, adding at the end that $7 was also taken out to pay for the chicken tenders he ate. Indignant, Mike/Matt insists that he is not paying for them and that they should be ashamed that they charge anyone for those chicken tenders. The bar manager concedes and gives him the additional seven bucks. Once again, it’s not about the money, it’s about asking for what you want and saying what you think without apologizing. It’s also about being funny. I was taking notes.
While there is a sadness to this story, it’s more complex than that. It’s not really sad or happy; it’s tender, it’s vulnerable, it’s lovely. It’s True. It’s built out of interactions and words that are so basic that you end up wondering how it’s possible that no one has said or written them before now. And when a story can touch you like that, when a complete stranger is not afraid to tell the Truth, a Truth that you also intuitively know, the world seems softer.
So if you’re craving a softer world and/or Truth, and you want to find that through laughter, you should probably go see this movie.