(SO MANY SPOILERS, YOU GUYS)
Before meeting Emily, I had no idea who Mike Birbiglia was. Emily was, or is, a big fan of Birbiglia’s standup, and watching his specials with her, I grew to like Mike, too. His delivery is slow and casual. He takes his time, and manages to tell stories that are, while funny, largely engrossing. Watching Mike Birbiglia, you feel as if you’re learning something about how people work.
How Mike has worked, throughout his entire career, is building on two focal points of his material; his love life and dealing with his REM sleep disorder. When Emily and I saw him in Royal Oak a few years ago, this was the same. However, Mike Birbiglia is such a likable person on stage, you’re more than happy hearing the story that he’s told throughout his career. There are always tiny nuances and, most importantly, there is his comforting presence. The guy’s pretty damn likable. Have I said that, yet?
This is why I was excited to see his debut film, “Sleepwalk with Me.” I was curious how he was going to bring this story to the screen. I was anticipating a new direction, interested as to how to his sleep disorder would be presented cinematically. The film begins with Mike, in his car, talking to us about the film we’re about to see. The lines he uses are almost verbatim from his stage show. In fact, they are verbatim. But, I didn’t mind. Mike’s likable.
Mike guides us through Matt Pandamiglio’s coming-of-age story from a bartender to a standup comedian struggling to come up with 15 minutes of material. In the background of this story is his long-term relationship to Abby, which suffers due to his busy standup career. As I have seen many of Birbiglia’s specials, I was disappointed as to how much of the film was Mike’s standup, again, verbatim. The largest laughs in the movie are lines he has delivered for years in his standup. And, the biggest difference between hearing Mike Birbiglia tell us this story and seeing Matt Pandamiligio go through it is the ability to see his girlfriend, Abby, suffer through Matt’s absence and his inability to make decisions.
Following the film, Ira Glass revealed in the Q&A that writing from the perspective of Mike/Matt’s girlfriend was the hardest part of the filmmaking process. Unfortunately, it shows. Abby appears needy and is infrequently in the film. I don’t find her to be a strong character. But, regardless, this isn’t about Abby, this is about Matt/Mike. “Remember, you’re supposed to be on my side,” Mike reminds us in a car interstitial, as he does on stage in his standup, right before we see Matt cheat on his girlfriend. This ends up being the biggest difference in the film from Mike’s standup; we can see his story, and it makes him less endearing.
I saw this with someone who went in blindly to the story of the film and Mike’s material, in general. She walked out of the film loving the picture, really enjoying it. And, on many levels, I liked the film, too. It’s very well directed. The lucidity at which the material is presented is a great addition to Mike’s tales of his REM sleep disorder mishaps. (I’m sure all fans of Mike Birbiglia will love seeing the Pizza Neck Pillow come to life, too, a highlight of the film, for sure.) And, while Abby is underwritten, their struggle as filmmakers resulted in an incredibly strong ending, based on true events like everything else in the film.
Still, I like Mike. I relate to his anxiety, ever present in his material. I, too, identify with how career work is presented in this film. When I work on a movie, I feel like I lose all sense of my social life. As Matt Pandamiligio starts his career, jumping from crappy show to crappy show, this is what happens to him, too. The film overall, however, reminds me how Mike Birglia’s story isn’t about how we work as a people, but how he works. I was left disappointed. The film feels slight. It’s strange saying I recommend this film, because I do, I think a lot of people will love this film. It’s charming and endearing, like Mike Birbiglia’s standup material. Now that Birbiglia has brought his incredibly personal public journal to the full screen, I feel like this chapter is closed. I look forward to what he does next.