*Sleepwalk With Me (NR)
Comedian Mike Birbiglia's Sleepwalk With Me may as well be titled Tears of a Clown. It's funny, sure. But it's primarily about a struggling comic fumbling his way toward success while trying to maintain an increasingly unstable romance. The former is somewhat deflating, the latter bittersweet. Both remove the character's rose-colored glasses.
Birbiglia plays Matt, this version of his early self. He also co-directs (with Seth Barrish) and co-writes (with Barrish, brother Joe Birbiglia, and NPR's Ira Glass, who's also a producer). The film was borne of a This American Life episode and starts off with Matt and his girlfriend of eight years, Abby (Lauren Ambrose), going to his sister's engagement party. Seemingly everyone, including Matt's asshole dad (James Rebhorn) and dopey mother (Carol Kane), bugs Matt about when he's going to get married.
Marriage isn't something that Matt even thinks about. He's more focused on the fact that he's still bartending at a comedy club while wishing he'd get more time onstage. (Or had more material to do so.) He's happy with the way his relationship is, and slightly disturbed that "everyone thinks the best thing about my life is my girlfriend."
Abby feels differently and grows distant, especially when Matt starts getting gigs and physical distance wedges them apart, too. All this pressure manifests itself in Matt sleepwalking, which leads to incidents as harmless as thinking there's a jackal in the bedroom to more dangerous scenarios.
The most entertaining part of Sleepwalk With Me is Matt's description of how he met Abby ("I kept running into her on campus — because I was following her") and their early relationship. Birbiglia is boyish, a calm talker, just meek enough to keep his punch lines surprising but not so meek that he's unlikable. (If anything, Birbiglia is extremely likable.) The film's also quite funny when it glimpses Matt's more polished stand-up sets.
But the bulk of the story ruminates on the price and pitfalls of success (i.e., Matt's more exhausted and seduced than he'd ever thought possible), as well as how to tell if you're in love with The One or when to let go of the almost-right person who's been in your life forever.
Birbiglia — technically as Matt, but why not drop the charade — occasionally addresses the camera directly, Ferris Bueller-style. The first time, in the opening scene, it's an excuse to do a quick, hilarious bit about a person answering a phone in a movie theater. The instances that follow inject commentary such as, "Remember, you're on my side" into the storyline. Such fourth-wall-breaking can be annoying, but because it's Birbiglia, these asides are warm and welcome, tugging at the veil that cloaks this semi-autobiography to apparently say: Yes, this is me, like it or not.
It would have felt better, less anguishing, if every part of Matt's story had been neatly tied up in happily-ever-afters. But even with Sleepwalk's persistent melancholy, we like it.