Film Review: Comedian Mike Birbiglia transfers stand-up quirks to Sleepwalk with Me with ease


Good comedians are born from pain, and truth is the most painful thing of all. That, in a nutshell, is Sleepwalk with Me.

Mike Birbiglia is a comedian who tells stories as much as he tells jokes, who could be Matt Damon’s lovable older brother and who decided that comedy wasn’t just for the microphone.

Sleepwalk with Me was originally an off-Broadway stand-up act before becoming a New York Times best-selling book nominated for the Thurber Prize for American Humor. He even performed it on “This American Life,” Ira Glass’ thought-provoking radio show.

Glass was the man who eventually helped Birbiglia turn it all into a semiautobiographical film. As far as self-made projects go, this one hits every indie nail on the head.

The film is a character study of comedian Matt Pandamiglio, played by Birbiglia, stuck with no support from his family, a girlfriend he doesn’t know how to break up with and a career he’s no good at.

What Sleepwalk tries to add to this is Pandamiglio’s – and by extension, Birbiglia’s – sleepwalking problem and how its increasing severity pushes Pandamiglio to stop denying the reality of his dead-end life. Every time he tries to ignore himself, the sleepwalking becomes worse, culminating in a trip to the emergency room. Eventually, he realizes that being truthful about his life gives him perspective enough to start fixing it.

Sleepwalk is the feel-good story we love seeing, but through the indie lens, it’s a little bit more emotionally stimulating.

Birbiglia is supported by a host of comedian friends, including Kristen Schaal, Wyatt Cenac, Marc Maron and Hannibal Buress.

You could call the characters quirky, but that would only detract from the film’s sincerity and intention. Birbiglia’s character has even evolved from the standard straight man surrounded by the weirdo dynamic that many indie films fall victim to. He is simply Birbiglia, or Pandamiglio, or Birbigglebugs, as no one ever gets his name right.

The truly intriguing element of Sleepwalk is the blend of stand-up, storytelling and visual cinema that Birbiglia manages without betraying the intent of the film.

In his true fashion, Birbiglia portrays the film as his story to you, with voice-over narration and talking-head interviews. This way, he can fully flesh out the details and provide the visual cues that make each event more poignant and humorous, while keeping the viewer relaxed and simply letting the story unfold. It is a masterstroke that should not be lost on the viewer.

The script, which Birbiglia co-wrote, borrows heavily from his stage act, which provides Birbiglia fans with a truly surreal experience. Some may find it disappointing to be able to mouth some of the dialogue right along with the characters, though others will find it refreshing to see how a stand-up set matches a visual storytelling medium like film. To see jokes repackaged as stories isn’t so much a letdown as it is a testament to how chameleonic Birbiglia’s words truly are.

Good comedians are born from pain. Birbiglia’s film, while visually presenting us this axiom, cuts at something a little deeper. A film that invades the inner workings of this American life, Sleepwalk with Me is well worth seeing, as much for its indie charm and humor as for its poignant reality.