SXSW Movie Review: SLEEPWALK WITH ME Is The Same Old Story Told Pretty Well…Again

Mike Birbiglia's SLEEPWALK WITH ME may seem familiar to some of you.

I walked into Sleepwalk With Me knowing nothing except that my friend wanted to see it, so I did too. Fifteen minutes into the film, I was struck by a very strong sensation of, "I know this story." Half an hour in, I felt like I'd seen the film before. With an hour left to go, I thought, "I know how this ends. [blank] happens." And sure enough, as the film drew to a close, [blank] happened. 

It turns out, Sleepwalk With Me is the true story of comedian Mike Birbiglia's travails with stand up comedy, commitment phobia and R.E.M. behavior disorder, or acting out his dreams as he sleeps. The story was familiar to me because I'd heard it on This American Life. Birbiglia also has a one-man off-Broadway show about it. He's also written a book about it. It's a good story, and Birbiglia is certainly getting his mileage out of it.

Birbiglia plays a younger version of himself, a burgeoning and - at first - terrible stand up comedian named Matt who just moved in with his lovely girlfriend Abby, played by Lauren Ambrose. Immediately, he feels trapped by this unwanted intimacy and disheartened by his failures at stand up. He begins physically manifesting his dreams as he sleeps; apparently, that is really dangerous! He falls off a TV stand that he believes is the platform where he's being awarded an Olympic medal. He fights invisible demons that reveal themselves to be blankets or the refrigerator. He's thus far managed to avoid injuring Abby as he sleeps, but only by the grace of good fortune. As Matt starts milking his personal drama for laughs and his stand up career takes off, he drives all over the country, sleeping in weird motel rooms and rarely seeing Abby. The sleep disorder spins out of control, and things are brought to a hilarious head.

The dreams are extraordinarily well represented in the film. They reminded me a bit of Kurosawa's Dreams: flushed with color and then unexpectedly shadowy, wherein sometimes Matt is participating and sometimes he's watching from afar. The absence of logic feels perfectly logical; all language is a non-sequitur. They feel like dreams I've had. They're not fantastic or grand. They're dumb. Dreams are usually pretty dumb.

Ambrose is terrific in the film, managing to give honesty to a girlfriend who feels rejected because her boyfriend doesn't want to marry her. There aren't a lot of fresh takes left on that character, but Ambrose found one. She's luminous in the film, just enchanting to watch. I know Ambrose is in plenty, but I want her to be in everything. Matt's parents, played by the great James Rebhorn and Carol Kane, are also great. They're the kind of parents who are pretty much the worst, but they're the worst in a really well-meaning way - which is the worst way parents can be the worst. 

The film also has a great guest spot from Kristen Schaal (!) and from Ira Glass, who co-wrote and produced the film. The movie is really funny, and it's directed with a lot of fourth wall-breaking, with Birbiglia talking straight to the camera, and all of that would be fine and fun if it just didn't seem like he were bored the entire film. He honestly seems to be phoning in this character and this story, and that's weird because this character is him and this story is his life. I guess there are only so many times you can tell a story - even a great story - before even you are tired of hearing it.