Sleepwalk stumbles with bland narrative

What does someone do when their act stalls? That’s the question asked about life and comedy in Sleepwalk with Me, and though the film offers something of an answer, the journey there  is just as plodding as its lead’s stand-up act.

Comic exposed · Mark Birbiglia co-stars in Sleepwalk with Me with Lauren Ambrose. The actor-director-screenwriter demonstrates superb visionary skills but fails to deliver a consistently strong performance. – | Photo courtesy of IFC Films

Adapted from comedian Mike Birbiglia’s one-man show, in turn inspired by Birbiglia’s own life, the film follows a fictional version of the comic at a changing period in his life. Co-written with This American Life host Ira Glass, the film puts its protagonist in a series of uncomfortable situations.

Matt (Birbiglia) is an aspiring comic whose career involves uncomfortable sets at comedy clubs to fill time between acts. He’s working as a bartender but thinks his career is going places despite reality. Meanwhile, his personal life is just as screwed up. His confidante, happy long-term girlfriend Abby (Lauren Ambrose), thinks their relationship is stalling and wants to get married. Matt’s own dysfunctional parents think he should do something with his life, but their constant bickering doesn’t inspire him with much hope.

To make matters worse, he’s developed a sleepwalking problem that often leaves him injured, and everyone else perplexed and concerned.

It’s a great set up for a character-driven dramedy, but Sleepwalk with Me never seems to get off the ground. And its faults lie solely with Birbiglia and Glass as screenwriters. The film lacks any sense of escalation or growth, and its lead never really clicks as an engaging protagonist.

Sleepwalk with Me revels in its awkwardness. Matt is, save for a few moments later in the film, horribly inept as a comic, and his sets fall flat both for characters in the movie and viewers. It’s hard to tell if the writers want to derive humor from this because it comes across as more uncomfortable than funny.

Matt fares much better in a few scenes near the beginning, before the stand-up becomes much of the focus. Some great early scenes in which he trades jokes with Abby are the film’s definite highlights. Birbiglia and Ambrose have a fun chemistry and their friendly banter adds weight to their romance.

But Matt’s problems also seem like Birbiglia’s problems as the lead actor. In those casual scenes, he’s engaging and charming. But when the film focuses on his growth and character development his charm wears off and he feels more irritating than sympathetic.

For such a protagonist-centric film, it’s hard to root for him.

Birbiglia fares much better as the film’s narrator, Matt, looking back at the events of the film. Directly addressing the camera or adding armchair commentary on his actions, he is forward, slightly sarcastic and much more engaging than the version of him caught up in the main plot. These moments have the momentum the rest of the film lacks.

When Matt’s personal life and his career stall, the movie does as well, despite the relatively short run time.

Brighter moments should occur when comedians Wyatt Cenac and Kristin Schaal pop in and out of the film, and although they never feel distracting, they don’t add much to the movie.

It’s not until the plot’s resolution that Sleepwalk with Me picks up, and since it’s the ending, it doesn’t help that much.

Despite the plot’s pitfalls, the story does allow Birbiglia to demonstrate his directing talents.

Birbiglia puts Matt in bright, tight angles when on stage, bringing out his nervousness with his act. The sleepwalking scenes — one standout of the film — definitely break up the plodding nature of the main story, with sepia-toned runs through fields and an action-packed race for Matt’s life.

Sleepwalk with Me does a fantastic job with its best elements. Birbiglia has proven an entertaining narrator and a creative, mood-setting director. But without much of a pulse to its story, the film mostly feels like a comedian mumbling through his act.