Mike Birbiglia — stand-up comedian and This American Life-darling — looks unassuming enough. A little scruffy, a little doughy, blue-eyed and sweatshirt-clad. We’re first introduced to him in his car, where we wait for several seconds as he fumbles for change for an upcoming toll. “I’m going to tell you a story, and it’s true,” he says, glancing at the camera.
The tale that follows is equal parts ordinary and unusual: Birbiglia plays himself, a budding comedian struggling with the pressure he feels to move his relationship towards marriage, while simultaneously dealing with a rare sleep disorder in which he physically acts out his dreams. Domestic scenes with his girlfriend Abby (Lauren Ambrose) are interspersed with rounds of hilariously cringe-worthy stand-up, and dream sequences from which Birbiglia awakens to find himself searching the refrigerator on his hands and knees, repeatedly kicking his hamper, or hurtling through a second story window.
Birbiglia may seem unobtrusive at first glance, but he quickly proves himself to be an apt and charismatic storyteller. Framed by his frank, self-deprecating narration, Sleepwalk with Me is gracefully paced, wonderfully detailed, and at once funny and poignant. The sleep disorder adds an absurd, delightfully random twist to a relationship-based story that is realistic and original.
The characters — his girlfriend, his parents (Carol Kane, James Rebhorn) — are lifelike and lovable, and the film has a knack for picking out the few details that will immediately bring them into focus. In his narration, Birbiglia describes how his mother “always wants to add one more thing, but it’s rarely something that deserves to be one more thing…” In the montage that depicts his first falling in love with Abby, we see her cheering for his pathetic stand-up routine, kissing him on the mouth when he comes back to his seat and exclaiming, “That was amazing!!”
Ambrose gives a vibrant performance as Abby — warm, caring, spirited — and we as viewers grow to care deeply about her almost immediately. Birbiglia himself is a sort of lovable, sad clown. His humor is refreshingly self-effacing rather than mocking, and he endears himself to us through his sincerity, insight, and humility. And that’s really the ticket when it comes to this film. The story depends on our caring about the characters, having an emotional stake in what happens to them, and through the clever writing and charming cast, this happens with ease.
Sleepwalk with Me is in many ways a slow heartbreak, the kind that makes you ache instead of cry. On paper, the story is perhaps not a happy one. But it is laugh-out-loud funny, and uplifting in the way that only something true, honest, and vulnerable can be.