Comedian Mike Birbiglia’s Sleepwalk With Me could have easily been titled Tears of a Clown. It’s funny, sure. But it primarily concerns a struggling comic fumbling his way toward success while trying to maintain an increasingly unstable romance. The former are somewhat deflating, the latter bittersweet. Both remove his rose-colored glasses.
Birbiglia plays Matt, a version of his early self, in addition to credits for co-directing (with Seth Barrish) and co-writing (with Barrish, brother Joe Birbiglia, and radio host Ira Glass). The film grew out of a segment from Glass’ This American Life, and begins 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 mom (Carol Kane), wants to know when he’s going to get married.
Marriage isn’t something Matt thinks about. He’s more focused on his current lot in comedy, the fact that he’s still bartending at a nightclub while wishing he’d get more time onstage. He’s happy with his relationship and slightly disturbed that “everyone thinks the best thing about my life is my girlfriend.” Abby feels differently and grows distant, especially as Matt lands more gigs and physical distance wedges them apart, too. All this pressure manifests in Matt sleepwalking, which stretch from harmless—at one point he think there’s a jackal in the bedroom—to life-threatening.
Sleepwalk With Me is most entertaining when it’s at its sweetest: “I kept running into her on campus—because I was following her,” is how Matt describes meeting Abby. Birbiglia is boyish, a calm talker, and just meek enough to keep his punch lines surprising but not so meek that he’s unlikable. (If anything, Birbiglia is extremely likable.) Also rewarding are the film’s glimpses of Matt’s more polished stand-up sets. But the bulk of the story ruminates on matters of success—Matt is more exhausted and seduced than he’d ever thought possible—as well as matters of the heart: How can you tell you’re in love with The One? And when do you let go of that person who’s merely almost-right?
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 for a quick, hilarious bit about a person answering a phone in a movie theater. The direct addresses that follow serve to inject commentary into the story (“Remember, you’re on my side”). This kind of fourth wall-breaking can be annoying, but because it’s Birbiglia, the asides are warm and welcome, tugging at the veil that cloaks this semiautobiography as if to 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.