||Turning a stand-up comedy routine into a movie isn’t an easy thing to do, and you have to give credit to Mike Birbiglia for pulling it off as well as he does in “Sleepwalk With Me.” The semi-autobiographical result is still a pretty flimsy piece, but a likable cast and a laid-back attitude make it moderately agreeable.
Basically Birbiglia’s act—and the script from it—is about how a sort-of facsimile of himself, Matt Pandamiglio, gradually achieves some success in stand-up, and the effect it has on his lengthy relationship with live-in girlfriend Abby (Lauren Ambrose). Tied in with that is the constant prodding to do something with his life from his gruffly businesslike father (James Rebhorn), who’s constantly irked not only by his son but by his infantile wife (Carol Kane). And added to the mix is Matt’s struggle with a dangerous sleeping disorder that makes him act out his dreams.
In this telling, Pandamiglio starts out from a place so low in the business he longs to be part of that it’s frankly hard to believe he will ever make it. Working as a bartender in a New York City bar where would-be stand-ups perform, he’s allowed to take to the stage from time to time, always bombing with wretched material. Back home he’s living with Abby, whom he courted in college and who has a real job that supports them. But he’s resistant to the idea of marriage, partially because of his parents’ example, but also because he’s just unable to commit. Though he’s too self-absorbed to deal with it, that’s a problem for Abby, especially since they’re involved in wedding preparations for his sister. And the stress causes the onset of his sleeping problems.
Things begin to change for Matt when he falls in with an agent (Sondra James, hilarious) who gets him some low-level out-of-town gigs which require long drives in his father’s car—and at which he initially bombs. But as he learns to personalize his material—literally to write what he knows—he becomes increasingly slick and successful on stage. In the process, of course, his jokes are more and more at Abby’s expense, though she doesn’t know it; and their relationship sours as his reluctance even to consider marriage becomes evident.
Birbiglia tells Pandamiglio’s story from his own experience, of course, and throughout offers direct commentary to the audience, stand-up style—though he does so while driving from gig to gig. The thread dealing with the Matt-Abby relationship is, however, told in a fairly conventional narrative fashion, though he also offers observations about it from his point of view, even asking for audience understanding along the way. And he resorts to some pretty funny if rather derivative bits—as when, while listening to an audio tape of William Dement’s book on sleep disorders, he has the author show up in the passenger seat of the car to talk directly to him. The idea might come from Woody Allen’s famous Marshall McLuhan joke from “Annie Hall,” but it still works.
Birbiglia makes an amiable screen presence, though hardly a great actor, and directs unfussily. Ambrose is a touching partner for him, and Rebhorn gets more than his share of laughs as his long-suffering dad, while Kane does her empty-headed routine to perfection. James is a riot, and the stand-ups recruited for cameos are an agreeable bunch.
“Sleepwalk With Me” is a mite ragged and messy. But for a stand-up routine reimagined for the screen, it’s pretty good.