Sleepwalk With Me is cooler than I am

September 14, 2012

Sleepwalk With Me
Grade: 81
Cast: Mike Birbiglia, Lauren Ambrose, Cristin Milioti, James Rebhorn, Carol Kane
Directors: Mike Birbiglia and Seth Barrish
Rating: Not rated
Running time: 90 minutes

Here I go again.

I don’t like saying sort of mean things about little movies like this one that a small but avid local audience is looking forward to seeing. I wish I could say is a wonderful, charming little movie. Unfortunately, it’s not.

It’s not a disaster either, and if you are a fan of stand-up comic/monologist Mike Birbiglia — and such people do exist — then I’m sure you’ll see and enjoy this. But if you’re not, and you’ve been alerted to the movie by the low grade buzz on social media, or by your hipster friends, then maybe I can at least prepare you for what you’re about to see. Maybe I can sufficiently lower your expectations so that you’ll leave the theater thinking, “Well, that wasn’t so bad.”

My problem with the film is that it is yet another film about an underachieving (but bright and talented) character trying to make it in world of straights who don’t immediately recognize how wonderful he is. It is a movie about a sad-sack lousy comedian who has somehow lucked into the world’s most perfect girlfriend (a simply luminous Lauren Ambrose) and his ongoing attempts to lose her by doing, alternately, extremely selfish and self-destructive things.

Furthermore, it is one of those movies where much depends on our willingness to believe the main character — a stand-up comic named Mike Pandamiglio, played by (and obviously meant to be the real) Birbiglia. We are to understand that this is not quite fiction, in part because most of the film has been recounted by Birbiglia, onstage and on the radio program This American Life as more or less true. (Or as we say in the biz, “nonfiction.”)

Not that the stories really happened exactly the way Pandamiglio/Birbiglia recounts them necessarily, but they are supposed to have an emotional “truth.” And they may well be “true” enough. But I have a hard time believing a lot of this film.

Pandamiglio/Birbiglia is an aspiring comic who doesn’t begin to have any success until he starts incorporating parts of his real life into his act. Mainly these parts consist of his doubts about his relationship and his sleep disorder, which dangerously causes him to act out his dreams. He is an adherent of the school of painful self-appraisal and honesty against one’s own interest, and while he’s no Louis C.K. — and I understand how unfair it is to compare him to Louis C.K. — he can be quite funny.

But one of the films problems is that for much of the time, Pandamiglio/Birbiglia is required to act the role of an unfunny comedian, and he’s simply not that great an actor. In fact, anytime that he’s not performing as a stand-up comedian in the film — anytime that he’s actually required to act, he comes across as stiff and awkward. And not stiff and awkward like his character might be in the virtual reality of the scene, but stiff and awkward like a movie actor who really isn’t very good at unself-consciously pretending to react to the other pretenders around him in a pretend situation.

In fact, he’s much better when — as he occasionally does — he speaks directly to the audience, clueing us in on why he’s worried that his world may be about to fly apart. He should have done that more often, for when the movie slides into a more conventional mode, it’s hard to understand why anyone would put up with this inept and possibly deranged young man.

Part of it may simply be that Pandamiglio/Birbiglia is at least a few years older than the Birbiglia who allegedly had these sorts of adventures, and it is unnerving to watch a grown man (Birbiglia is 34) behaving like an adolescent.

(Of course, we have managed to push the onset of adulthood in this country back a decade or more — I’m aware that lots of people in their 30s live like teenagers for reasons not entirely of their own making. So maybe it’s not as unlikely as I imagine.)

Still, I have to confess exhaustion with movies about quirky young people who are smarter than their hardworking parents and cooler than me.

That’s it. Now you kids get off my lawn. And while you’re at it, get a job.

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