'Sleepwalk With Me' offers a funny take on relationships

By Betsy Sharkey

Los Angeles Times (MCT)

Published: Friday, Sept. 7 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

FILE - In this Jan. 23, 2012 file photo, director/actor Mike Birbiglia of the film "Sleepwalk With Me," poses for a portrait during the 2012 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah.

Victoria Will, File, Associated Press

"Sleepwalk With Me" — ★★★ — Mike Birbiglia, Lauren Ambrose, Carol Kane, James Rebhorn; not rated but probable R (language, adult themes, drugs); Broadway

Comic Mike Birbiglia's very funny one-man show about love, life on the stand-up circuit, sleepwalking and the perils of all three was a near-perfectly calibrated piece of theater that became an off-Broadway hit a few years ago. The comic's conversational storytelling made all the players and their problems seem very real. The staging was unexpected, the timing exceptional.

Having seen the show on stage, I wondered if Birbiglia could morph the ideas into an equally funny movie. He hasn't quite, but he's come pretty close. Shot on a shoestring budget, "Sleepwalk With Me's" transition from stage to screen primarily works because Birbiglia continues to carry the weight. The movie leans heavily on the comic's quirky, self-deprecating style that made the original work so well.

The story itself is a familiar one in which Birbiglia plays nice-guy Matt, who can't quite get the commitment thing right. The film opens with him behind the wheel of a decidedly uncool car, telling us how he came to be an underpaid, struggling stand-up with an impatient father (James Rebhorn), a flighty mother (Carol Kane) and an incredible girlfriend, Abby (Lauren Ambrose). It's just the audience and Matt having a moment, so you know right away Birbiglia hasn't left his stage influences completely behind.

Though he continues to break through that wall on occasion, for the most part "Sleepwalk" slips quickly into a more traditional blend of narration and scenes. We are taken back to the time when Abby and Matt get their first apartment together, which is, of course, the beginning of the end. Relationship pressures heat up after his sister gets engaged, then married. Friends start having babies; their babies need buddies. Tick, tick, tick — that's an emotional bomb you're hearing, not a biological clock.

As the screws tighten, Matt's sleepwalking begins. It's a disturbing variety where he is actually living out his nightmares, trying to kill the jackal in his dreams — an episode that leaves a trash can pretty much destroyed. It gets worse, and far more dangerous, as Abby and Matt's eight-year relationship flounders.

Ambrose, who has been sorely missed since the regular injection of her fine acting on "Six Feet Under" ended, is as delightful as ever. Indeed, one of the movie's strengths is the way in which it manages to make Matt and Abby's troubled romance interesting without a lot of conflict.

One of the great pleasures of the film is watching a comic find his voice — the stony silences giving way to genuine laughter when he finds the right line.

It is a very good ensemble overall, and the movie is filled with terrific small turns by many of Birbiglia's real-life funny friends.

Ironically, the very thing that should have offered a world of visual possibilities — sleepwalking — is the one that doesn't always work. By the end, though, they get it absolutely right, taking a giant leap of faith to make sure Matt's world comes crashing down exactly as it should.

"Sleepwalk With Me" is not rated but would probably receive an R for language, adult themes and drugs; running time: 90 minutes.

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