One of the perks of writing for Movie Buzzers is having access to see intriguing independent films that otherwise might be difficult to see. Even still, some films have such limited release that even though I want to check them out I don’t get a chance to until they hit Blu-ray/DVD. One example of that is Sleepwalk With Me, a film adaptation of comedian Mike Birbiglia‘s one-man show that was co-written, directed, and stars Birbiglia himself. I love the format of one-man shows, some of which have previously been turned into brilliant films with a full cast, and was looking forward to seeing Birbiglia’s adaptation of his own show.
The autobiographical story is about Birbiglia and his long-time girlfriend, Abby (Lauren Ambrose), during the time that Birbiglia’s younger sister, Janet (Cristin Milloti), is preparing to get married. Mike and Abby are naturally hit with “when will you guys finally get married?” questions, which causes stress in the relationship in several ways. First, Abby is keen on marrying, but Mike, who works as a bartender at a comedy club and fills time between acts, doesn’t feel that he is ready because his career hasn’t even started yet. Worse, the stress from their issues leads to Mike developing a sleeping disorder in which while he dreams he sleepwalks into awful, and often physically damaging, situations. A chance meeting leads to Mike landing several standup gigs, and because he’s woefully unprepared he begins to talk about his relationship problems on stage and ends up becoming a hit with audiences. However, the fundamental question of what will happen with Mike’s relationship with Abby remains.
From very early on it’s obvious that Mike and Abby’s relationship doesn’t work, and Mike’s stress over his inability to commit is just one of the couple’s problems. It’s likely that you’ve had a friend who was in a lengthy relationship that never made it to marriage because it essentially didn’t work at its most basic level (or perhaps you have been in one of those relationships yourself), so it’s not like you won’t be able to relate to the film. The question is whether you want to watch such a relationship slowly unravel, even over the course of Sleepwalk With Me‘s brief 84 minutes. Birbiglia’s comedy makes it entertaining enough so the movie is ultimately a success, although comparisons between Birbiglia and Woody Allen (there are two critic quotes making that comparison on the Blu-ray case alone) are vastly premature.
For one thing, I don’t believe Birbiglia made the right decision by deciding to direct the film himself. Certainly he knows the story more intimately than anyone else and nobody else could have played “himself,” but a director with more experience could have helped coach Birbiglia with his acting, which is the weakest part of the film. Though he’s meant to be an inexperienced standup comic for much of the film, Birbiglia seems to be trying too hard to be unseasoned and awkward. It isn’t until the last twenty minutes when he’s finally comfortable on stage that we meet the Mike Birbiglia as he is on stage, and everything comes naturally. Most comedians build up their film experience by appearing in short cameos in other films first, and while Birbiglia has appeared in a few (such as Cedar Rapids), none amounted to much screentime. Sure, he had lots of practice doing this role on stage, but I think for his first lead role Birbiglia could have used a bit more guidance, like Chazz Palminteri did when Robert De Niro directed his one-man show, A Bronx Tale, for the screen.
The parts of the film that do work — most of the funny and poignant bits are in the later half — work wonderfully, and they’re obviously quite funny. Fans of Birbiglia will likely love it if they haven’t seen it already, but this film isn’t groundbreaking enough to turn legions of people into new fans. Perhaps with another film or two under his belt he will make one that will.
The film’s short length is matched by its plentiful extras, which is wonderful to see from an independent film.
Commentary — The commentary is done by producer/co-writer Ira Glass and Birbiglia, and it’s one of the better commentaries I’ve heard in a while. That’s mostly because Birbiglia focuses on the issues he had as a first-time filmmaker. Surprisingly, the framing sequence and the voiceover commentary were not initially part of the film and were shot later, which ended up incorporating more material from the one-man show. Really informative, especially if you are about to shoot your first film.
Making Of — A 14-minute explanation about how Sleepwalk With Me went from a one-man show to a feature film. We meet all of the major players and learn about how Birbiglia approached the film as a first-time film director. It also focuses on how the narrative transformed from a spoken word one-man show to a narrative with a full cast and the challenges of shooting on a low budget.
Outtakes — 4 minutes of cut footage of some of the more awkward mishaps on set, including a bit in which a piece of the set falls on Birbiglia.
Q&A with Ira Glass & Mike Birbiglia — A thirty-four minute Q&A session with Glass and Birbiglia that is moderated by Joss Whedon, who admits he is completely unprepared to moderate. Humorously, Glass and Birbiglia open by pointing out that Sleepwalk With Me had a higher per screen average on its opening weekend than Whedon’s The Avengers (of course, Sleepwalk With Me was playing on a single screen its opening weekend versus the 4000+ that Avengers did, but who’s counting?). Glass and Birbiglia discuss the genesis of the project, including what had to be altered from the one-man show (which Birbiglia says is “97% true”) to make it a better story for film. Curiously, Whedon almost gets equal time here since Birbiglia and Glass end up asking him questions about his filmmaking experience.
Behind The Scenes Shorts — These are really fun. Being that this was the first film directed by Birbiglia, they put together a few fun bits from the set as “short documentaries.” This include various “talking head” sequences that reveal what was particularly challenging about particular scenes. One surprising bit is that one of the shorts reveals that the Dr. Clement who appears in the film is the actual doctor whose book Birbiglia was given to help get over his sleep issues. Another really interesting aspect is how the film was photo-storyboarded.
Movie Rating: A solid first film from a comedic talent who is destined to be a bigger name (6/10).
Disc Rating: With some really in-depth features for a film that didn’t cost much, this actually puts some of the big studios to shame with their skimpy features (8.5/10).
Sleepwalk With Me is now available on DVD and Blu-ray from IFC Films.