December 21, 2012 by Devin
Movies like Sleepwalk With Me don’t exist. Movies, if they are inspired on a true story, are just that – inspired. They are not the actual story. A screenwriter takes true events, molds them into his or her own vision, and then a director takes that vision, molds it into her or his own vision, and then the actors take that vision and mold it into their own vision, and so on and so forth.
“I’m going to tell you a story, and it’s true. I always have to tell people that because, inevitably, someone will come up to me and they’ll be like, ‘Is that true?’ and I’ll be like, ‘Yeah.’ And they’ll be like, ‘Was it?’ I don’t know how to respond to that. I guess I could say it louder.”
Sleepwalk With Me tells the story of Mike Birbiglia, who is also the director and screenwriter (he has a different name in the movie, but it is the same person). The movie details the conflicts with his girlfriend over marriage and commitment all while he struggles making a career out of stand up comedy.
This movie feels honest, even more so than many documentaries, for documentaries are crafted experiences designed to give one person’s viewpoint and experiences in order to make the audience believe one thing or the other. Documentaries rarely acknowledge the other side, but Sleepwalk With Me shows all the sides of Birbiglia.
Birbiglia talks to the camera at the beginning of the movie, but this is not like how most movie characters talk to the camera, mainly because Birbiglia is not a character. He is a real person acting out his life. Birbiglia acknowledges that he is in a movie, but not in a cheeky “Oh look!” way. It is a simple statement of fact. It is like a director’s commentary built into the movie.
I was not prepared for how sad this movie would be. I figured that it would have elements of comedy and drama, but what I did not expect would be that the comedy would have such a heavy context. The stand up comedy bits are present, and taken on their own they are quite humorous, but in the movie, the origins of the comedy are tragic. Whereas a show like Seinfeld portrayed the comedian as one who is able to find the joy in life and bring it out for others to share, Sleepwalk With Me portrays comedy as the last vestige of a broken man. Ultimately, Birbiglia uses comedy to find himself and air out his problems like a group therapy session.
I found this film hard to watch. The beginnings of Birbiglia’s comedic career are cringe-worthy enough, but the real difficulty for me was seeing the arguments between Birbiglia and his girlfriend. These arguments are not Hollywood arguments. There is not a grand confrontational that has a climax where people get out what their feeling and then have to deal with the consequences. These are two people that are just trying to make each other happy and doing all they can to hide themselves. These are conversations I have had before, and they are not fun.
I find myself in a weird position when evaluating this movie. I think there is great value in it as an experiment in film honesty, and there is a lot of entertainment value in this film. What I find strange is that the film does not seek to be an indie gem, something that gets handed from person to person like a film incarnation of the traveling pants. It definitely does not shoot to be an Oscar film. I think it exists primarily for Birbiglia. Part of me feels like this film is really the final step in Birbiglia’s therapy, the last group session he hosts to come to grips with the state of his life.
I do not know whether or not you will like this film, I am not even sure for myself, but I am glad it was made.