GOOD TIMING AND A GOOD TIME
Mike Birbiglia’s one-man show, Sleepwalk With Me, has been turned into a movie so well-edited that even if its excellent writing, acting, and direction make it into this sentence, they’ll be sandwiched between gushes about Geoffrey Richman’s editing. Here, Mr. Richman does for comic timing what he did for sports-personality suspense in 2005′s Murderball (which, if you haven’t seen it, was a lot) and for agitprop in 2007′s Sicko. Another potential shadow over Mr. Birbiglia’s accomplishment could be cast by his high-profile producer and co-writer, National Public Radio icon Ira Glass. But Mr. Birbiglia has done such a great deal of fine work on this project that his contributions as star, co-writer, director, and all-around prime mover are in no actual danger of being overlooked. Sleepwalk With Me is a lovely movie, independent in its structure and spirit, and an irresistible joy to watch.
An autobiographical fiction, the movie diagrams Matt Pandamiglio’s trials as a novice stand-up comic, as well as his concurrent development of a terrifying sleep disorder. Performers will appreciate this story’s very funny graph of the stark peaks and valleys in a nascent career, and anyone who’s ever woken up disoriented will shiver at the prospect of not waking up in time to prevent grievous injury. But every human being can recognize this nuanced analysis of the arrested-trajectory romance, a factor that helps place Sleepwalk With Me in the small category of films better than their source material.
For one minute or fifty years, each of us has experienced the existential malaise of somnambulating through a relationship. Mr. Birbiglia’s sweet, nonplussed expression is the perfect vehicle for Everyman’s trip up Girlfriend Who Suddenly Wants a Baby Lane. The adorably vital Lauren Ambrose could not have been better cast as the girl so perfect you can’t figure out why you won’t go ahead and marry her. Neither could anyone improve on Carol Kane and James Rebhorn, who as Mr. Birbiglia’s parents improvised much of their breathtaking work. The supporting cast, culled from a list of the most exciting comic actors working today, is uniformly ideal. Particular revelations include Kristen Schaal as a peevish college lip-synch contest organizer, Cristin Milioti as the sister with her shit together, and Marc Maron as a somewhat creepy mentor figure. Sondra James, though, deserves special mention for playing the most accurate low-level talent agent I’ve ever seen on a screen, a jaded woman so disengaged that it’s hard to tell whether she’s offering you money or firing you.
Mr. Birbiglia’s direction (abetted by co-director Seth Barrish, who directed the stage version and also co-wrote the film) simultaneously encourages audience comfort and panic: though it’s got an unusual chronological construction, we always know where we are. But most of the time, in the most delicious way, we don’t want to be there. For a first film, Sleepwalk With Me looks and feels assured, despite what’s been publicly chronicled as an extremely complicated post-production and editing process. (For instance: Mr. Birbiglia’s running to-the-camera commentary, Ferris Bueller-style, was cut and replaced with a different schtick after the filmmakers realized camp wasn’t where they wanted to go. It is no simple job to edit around the middle of shots, but again, that’s why you get Geoffrey Richman.) What’s slightly less perfect about the movie, my only real quibble, is the easy-peasy single-scene fixes to the protagonist’s biggest obstacles. This happens two or three times, and it’s entirely a writing problem, a tendency toward the deus ex machina.
But the real god in this machine is that the movie has so many parts running smoothly that a momentum of excellence carries it right past trouble spots. So once more, while we’re on the subject, and I promise it’s the last time I’ll mention Mr. Richman: for reasons both known and unforeseeable, hiring a great editor is among the most important investments a producer can make – especially if he’s making a comedy. Just look at Old School, the only Todd Fields movie edited by the underrated Michael Jablow, and also the only funny Todd Fields movie. Mr. Fields’ The Hangover has a great script and would have been funny if only it had good timing. Which it didn’t. Although it somehow has two sequels.
Sleepwalk With Me lacks a Todd Fields picture’s production values, star power, and marketing budget; Burger King isn’t selling Sprite in cups bearing Mike Birbiglia’s sleepy face. Yet the movie can boast one of the highest-grossing (per-screen) American opening weekends this year, due to its brilliant performance at a single New York City venue last week. This is the result of an heroic effort by Ira Glass, who used his NPR following to raise the movie’s name recognition and to create an Internet campaign (including a mock “war” on YouTube with Avengers director Joss Whedon) to place the movie on more than the 34 screens IFC originally wrangled. In a staggered opening over the next few weeks, it’ll be viewable on over 100. That’s a good thing, because watching Sleepwalk With Me encourages optimism, a commodity that through this November Americans will be searching ever harder to find.
photos courtesy IFC Films
Sleepwalk With Me
distributed by IFC Films
MPAA rating: Unrated
in limited release nationwide
for venues, visit http://www.sleepwalkmovie.com/screenings