If it's true that comedy is harder than drama, imagine how hard it is to make a movie about standup comedy. A handful of films have tried, but so few have succeeded in capturing the essence of what makes a human being go before an audience with a microphone and try to elicit laughs from strangers. In its own low-key way, Mike Birbiglia's Sleepwalk With Me comes closer than most.
Based on his one-man show, the movie stars Birbiglia as Matt Pandamiglio, a bottom-of-the-bill standup who makes more money bartending at the club where he usually performs his sets than he does telling jokes. His father Frank (James Rebhorn) demands that he fully focus on the comedy or get a real job, his ditzy mother (Carol Kane) speaks without thinking, and Matt would be permanently miserable if not for his girlfriend Abby (a pitch-perfect Lauren Ambrose). As Matt says early on, his girlfriend is the best thing about him.
On top of this, Matt suffers from a severe form of sleepwalking during which he is compelled to act out his dreams, leading to situations that are funny but pose a serious danger to his health. These episodes are linked directly with Matt's stress levels, and the pressure he feels in his life only increases as he starts spending more time on the road, driving from gig to gig, than he does with Abby, whom he can't quite bring himself to marry even though she's seemingly perfect. Complicating matters further is the fact that he's becoming a much better comic telling truthful jokes about his ambivalent feelings for Abby, feelings he can't bring himself to share with her.
Their inability to communicate turns out to be the center of the picture, and it's heartbreaking to watch, in no small part because Ambrose is so appealing as Abby. The character is a superb girlfriend, and she and Matt laugh together and help put each other at ease. Underneath all of that, however, are unstated truths and feelings they're keeping to themselves because they don't want to risk hurting the other person. Abby isn't a saint, just a really nice person whose happiness we wish for -- just as Matt does.
Mike Birbiglia, working from a script co-written with his brother Joe Birbiglia, Seth Barrish, and This American Life's Ira Glass, has a soothing, safe quality about him. He may be a jumble of nerves, but his demeanor is closer to a deadpan Steven Wright than a jittery Woody Allen. Yet it's difficult not to think of Allen -- and specifically his most beloved film, Annie Hall -- while watching Sleepwalk With Me. The comparisons are numerous, but Birbiglia's picture is more contained than Allen's sprawling survey of a relationship gone bad. Where Alvy performs a movie-long autopsy on his breakup with Annie, trying to figure out how and why it all went wrong, Matt provides more of a knowing confession. This isn't the story of the end of a love affair; it's the story of a comic gaining self-awareness, and how this knowledge makes him better on-stage.
By showing us that Matt's comedy improves as he gains maturity, Sleepwalk With Me sets itself apart from other movies about standups. The moral he learns is to face up to the truth, or else he'll be miserable. That's a life lesson that will hit home with anyone, not just comedians.