Saturday, September 1, 2012

Sleepwalk with Me (C+)

Comedian and professional storyteller Mike Birbiglia's semi-autobiographical directorial debut, Sleepwalk with Me, combines traditional staples of the mumblecore movement with occasional bursts of surrealist humor, to analyze the life of a naive, self proclaimed comic. Directed, written, and starring Birbiglia, the film is a passion project of sorts. Though based off his off-broadway show, and best selling book, I first heard Birbiglia's story in a segment around two years ago on the Ira Glass hosted radio show This American Life (Glass would later produce, and help write the script for the film. He also appears briefly as a wedding photographer in a blink-and-you'll-miss-it cameo). In the segment, Birbiglia monologues about his personal life while beginning a career in comedy; stressing over an 8 year romantic relationship moving toward marriage, doubt from parents that this type of sporadic employment will provide steady income, and low self-esteem that his material is any good to begin with. At the same time, all of these internal and external pressures may be causing him to develop RSD, a sleeping disorder which causes him to subconsciously reenact his dreams in reality. It's an occasionally hilarious, melancholic story, but developing it into a movie may not of been the best choice.

While Birbiglia is certainly a charismatic lead, the film itself fails to sustain the comic momentum featured in the audible re-telling. Though it only runs an anemic 77 minutes, credits not included, the whole experience feels padded so that the comedy would be long enough to be qualified for "feature length" status. The editing is overall very sloppy in a way that more detracts from the experience, rather than add a certain scruffy charm. An example of this is an early scene in which a cameoing David Wain, and an actress who I cannot find the name of, briefly appear as happily married friends of Birbiglia and his girlfriend. The purpose of this encounter seems to be how the girlfriend wants to have a child and marriage similar to this couple, but the audience already knows about this desire based off several earlier scenes which give the same conclusion about this character. In the eyes of most directors, this would serve no substantial purpose, and be immediately cut, but it is startlingly left in the final version. My opinion of this example holds precedent in many other scenes with repeated plot points, morals, etc...

In a movie whose main subject is standup comedy, I was also deeply surprised how bland the jokes were in the film. While the brief segments of Birbiglia's assumedly real life routine were hilarious, the writing team behind the feature seem to have transformed the currently existing, "real life", characters into generic stereotypes at every turn. The parents are nothing more than judgmental two-dimensional figurines, the girlfriend seems straight cut from the Jennifer Aniston mold. The only actor who walks away unscathed from their blanketed portrayal is professional podcaster and fellow comedian Marc Maron, who in his five minutes of screentime, brings the much needed pathos as an older comic who gives Birbiglia career advice. Other than excerpts from the routine itself, along with the occasional successful dream sequence, the film mostly meanders along, seemingly waiting to end.

Though the story its based on may be charming and entertaining,
Sleepwalk with Me sadly proves that Birbiglia may be a more talented actor and storyteller than filmmaker. Though it's not without its moments, it's simply too dull and shockingly generic to recommend.

Grade: C+

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