Low-key flick melds humor and pathos 

click to enlarge Modest and novel: Mike Birbiglia plays a troubled yet funny comedian in “Sleepwalk With Me.” - COURTESY PHOTO
  • Courtesy Photo
  • Modest and novel: Mike Birbiglia plays a troubled yet funny comedian in “Sleepwalk With Me.”

Comedian Mike Birbiglia steers viewers through a less-than-brilliant early career and personal traumas in “Sleepwalk With Me,” an autobiographical comedy that, while low on oomph, is novel and likable.

Part romantic comedy, part comedian-condition survey and part sleep-disorder horror flick, the film is the latest incarnation of Birbiglia’s 2008 off-Broadway show, which also resulted in a best-seller and a segment on NPR’s “This American Life.”

Birbiglia and stage director Seth Barrish share directorial credits. Both also co-wrote the screenplay, with two others.

Birbiglia plays the Birbiglia-like Matt Pandamiglio, a stand-up comic with a self-deprecating and deceptively easygoing style. In storyteller mode, Matt addresses us through the camera. His narration triggers flashbacks in which Matt is an aspiring comedian with personal pressures.

The pre-success Matt bartends in a Brooklyn comedy club where his only stand-up opportunities are fill-in spots.

He’s terrible.

At home, Matt has a wonderful girlfriend, Abby (Lauren Ambrose). The problem: Abby wants to take their eight-year relationship in the marital direction. Matt panics at that thought.

Increasing the stress are stand-up gigs Matt has landed, booked by an agent impressed primarily by the fact that he owns wheels. Audiences are either nonexistent or hostile on this low-grade tour.
Anxiety triggers REM behavior disorder, a condition that causes Matt to act out his dreams while asleep. “There’s a jackal in the room!” he shouts.
Being a comedian, Matt turns his terrors into humor and, at the suggestion of a cohort, incorporates these jokes into his act. Audiences laugh. But his brightening career distances him from Abby.
Birbiglia isn’t the most forceful of artists. His depiction of Matt’s subsurface unease, which results in a life-threatening “sleepwalking” incident, isn’t particularly powerful.
But he is an engaging storyteller and an agreeable screen presence, and his movie is involving and amusing, with a modesty that makes his relationship material ring true. His presentation of a budding comic’s life has a firsthand feel.
The sleep-disorder scenes, which include colorful dreamscapes, contain funny, unique and sometimes horrific moments. The sight of Matt zipped up in a sleeping bag and wearing mittens (so he can’t hurt himself) is indelible.
Meanwhile, the supporting players — including James Rebhorn and Carol Kane as Matt’s loud but loving parents — supply chops that Birbiglia, more raconteur than thespian, lacks.

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Anita Katz

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