One of the stories that stands out in the vast This American Life canon is comedian Mike Birbiglia’s account of a dangerous sleepwalking incident at a La Quinta Inn, which is featured on the episode “Fear of Sleep” alongside other harrowing tales of bedbug infestations and night terrors. The monologue (a true account, unlike another first-hand tale that recently appeared on TAL) was recorded at a taping of The Moth podcast, and it’s also part of a one-man off-Broadway show and a memoir of the same name.
The story gets yet another iteration in the form of a Sleepwalk With Me film, which opens locally at Prytania Theater today. In the quiet comedy, Birbiglia uses his worsening sleepwalking problem to weave a narrative through other aspects of his biography: mainly, his struggle to succeed as a stand-up comic and his ambivalence about a long-term relationship.
Birbiglia plays a slightly fictionalized version of his younger self named Matt Pandamiglio, a self-effacing aspiring stand-up comic who can’t come up with more than 11 minutes of material and who is spooked by being assertive about anything. Abby, his live-in girlfriend of eight years, (played by the lovely Lauren Ambrose, who even gets a moment to sing) wants to get married, as does their constellation of friends and family — especially Pandamiglio’s parents, played by Carol Kane and James Rebhorn, who make that known frequently. His stand-up career is limited to poorly attended college gigs, and meanwhile his sleepwalking episodes are becoming increasingly ridiculous. Like his real-life counterpart, Pandamiglio has absurd dreams that he acts out via perilous somnambulant stunts.
Among these intersecting narratives, the sleepwalking functions to represent all the problems in passive Pandamiglio’s waking life that he refuses to confront. The dream sequences enter seamlessly in the film; sometimes, a scene appears normal until it takes a surreal turn. In a recent Fresh Air interview, film producer/TAL host Ira Glass lamented the use of dream sequences in films, and worked hard to make Sleepwalk With Me’s work. They do, for the most part.
Another device used in the film is in Pandamiglio’s narration, which is told from his future self by way of voiceover and through him directly addressing the audience while driving in his car — something that’s not as cloying as one might think. The only time it grated was in the first scene, when the character tells the audience to turn off their cell phones. But overall, as an actor as the film’s storyteller, Birbiglia is an easy, likable presence.
Things take a turn in Pandamiglio’s career when he receives some much-need advice from a comic played by Marc Maron (his character is “Marc Mulheren”). Comedy fans may appreciate the cameo by the comedian/podcast host, and there’s other brief appearances by Kristen Schaal, Hannibal Buress and other comics. Alex Karpovsky from Lena Dunham’s Girls and Tiny Furniture also has some memorable moments, and Glass makes a cameo as a wedding photographer.
The sleepwalking element ties together the film’s various arcs, but none of those narrative strains are ever actualized in a very satisfying way. Perhaps because I was familiar with the La Quinta incident, which is the culmination of the sleepwalking storyline, it didn’t pack the intended punch for me. I didn’t find the comedy or relationship arcs satisfying, either. But it’s a subtle film — Time’s Richard Corliss even called it “soothing, like a cup of camomile tea before bedtime” — and a fine filmmaking debut from Birbiglia. And even those without a potentially life-threatening sleepwalking problem can relate to the struggle of finding one's voice.
Sleepwalk With Me opens at Prytania today and plays every two hours starting at noon for one week.