Sleepwalk with Me

SLEEPWALK WITH ME. Starring Mike Birbiglia, Lauren Ambrose, Carol Kane, and James Rebhorn. Directed by Mike Birbiglia. Rated M (Mature themes and infrequent coarse language). 81 min.

This is a documentary film, written by, directed by, and starring comedian Mike Bribiglia, who is in Australia at the moment to perform at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival. It is based on a true story told in his 2010 book, “Sleepwalk With Me & Other Painfully True Stories”, acted earlier in a one-man stand-up comedy routine, off-Broadway in New York. The film won the Audience Award for “Best of Next” at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival.

In the film, Berbiglia talks directly to the camera about his own personal experiences as a comedian, and he refers to himself as Matt Pandamiglio, a victim of a serious sleep disorder. Berbiglia enacts the dramatisation of Matt’s experiences in a series of flashbacks. They all depict his attempts to cope with what is happening to him in his relationship with his girlfriend, Abbey (Lauren Ambrose), who wants to marry him. After eight years with Abbey, his career is not what he wants it to be, and he is a heavy sleepwalker. He sleepwalks to cope with his anxiety about having to marry Abbey, and his sleep behaviour expresses feelings he can’t admit to, while awake.

The movie tracks the real life of Berbiglia from when he is struggling to forge a comedy style to when he discovers a style that works. When Matt begins life as an aspiring comedian in clubs, it is obvious that his comedy routines are not good, and his audiences are unresponsive. His failures are excruciating, but as life becomes more stressful for him, he incorporates the pressures he feels into his comedy. His anxiety becomes the creative life-force of his comedy routines.

When Matt is consumed with worry about proposing to Abbey and about losing her, and he communicates his personal angst to his audience, the spontaneity of his comedy-act takes off. His audiences clearly enjoy hearing about his worries about marriage, as well as about his feelings for his autocratic, unsympathetic father (James Rebhorn), and his out-of-touch mother (Carol Kane).

The movie fluctuates between intimate revelations, the realities of having a sleep disorder, and surreal behaviour expressed in dream sequences that remind one of some of the movies by Woody Allen. The film honestly portrays the life of a stand-up comedian, but it also offers a sad comment on relationships that matter, and marriage, in particular.

As his marriage to Abbey approaches, Matt sleepwalks more and more, and he engages in risky behaviour, such as leaping through the closed window of a motel from its second floor. As the nature of Matt’s problems unfold, however, the film starts to tell us that he is more concerned about getting his comedy act together than the person who is engaged to marry him. At a deeper level, the movie also lets us know that as Matt ridicules on stage what he values in life, people find him funny, and that says significant things about the pressures placed on comedians by audiences wanting to be entertained. The film also lets us know that there is often something cruel about what makes audiences respond positively to comedy. Their laughter creates self-absorption in comedians, who are desperate to please them.

This is a film about a comedian struggling to find himself artistically, but Matt finds artistry and popular appeal by paying a price. That price is baring insecurity in public, so that others can find enjoyment in personal conflict - anchored to insecurity, Matt’s comedy-act achieves popularity when it becomes confessional.

The film shows insightfully how hard it can be for comedians to be successful. Matt is a comedian, who is likeable and talented. The film captures his life-situation very well with witty dialogue, but it is hard to forget that Matt is someone wanting to arouse laughter in others by revealing too much of himself.

Peter W. Sheehan is associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.

Sharmill Films.

Out April 4th 2013.

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