Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Sleepwalk with Me

Alternate Title:  Dying is Easy, Comedy is Hard

One sentence synopsis:  A struggling stand-up comedian must deal with a decision on whether to marry his long-term girlfriend, as well as a worsening case of sleepwalking.

Things Havoc liked:  I'd never heard of Mike Birbiglia before, but judging from his IMDB and Wikipedia pages, that places me in something of a minority. My sister, who had heard of him, recommended that I see this film, based on a one-man Broadway play and a series of stand-up sketches he performed at various times on tour and for National Public Radio, detailing the lengthy process that he went through trying to define his relationship with his long-term girlfriend, break into the stand-up comedian business, and deal with a sleepwalking problem that has grew progressively worse as the tensions with the first two issues increased. To describe it as a 'problem' is perhaps understating the matter. One episode involves Birbiglia diving headfirst through a closed, second-story window in his hotel room, an incident we are repeatedly assured actually happened.

Such assurances come to us because Sleepwalk with me is filmed as a part-movie, part-Video log, with lengthy sequences wherein Birbiglia stares into a camera mounted in his car passenger seat, and explains to us his mindset or additional details concerning what we are about to see or have just seen. It's a narrative trick that used to be far more common in indie cinema, the best example of which is probably 'High Fidelity', John Cusack's greatest movie, made back in 2000. Through it, Birbiglia delivers a bewildering array of flashbacks, flash-forwards, timeskips, and other editing tricks that somehow manage to knit together into a coherent, nominally autobiographical story.

I'm normally suspicious of autobiographies, but I'm prepared to take this one on faith, considering the utter disregard this movie seems to hold its main character in. Birbiglia is portrayed here as an insensitive idiot, not mean necessarily, just clueless to the point of blindness thanks to the competing pressures he either receives or perceives from his parents (played by Carol Kane and the ubiquitous James Rebhorn), his sister, his agent, and of course, his long-time (8-year) girlfriend, played by Lauren Ambrose. We watch him as he drifts through his life, struggling to break into stand up comedy, despite having apparently no talent whatsoever for it. As Birbiglia himself is a famous comedian, with Comedy Central specials, successful Broadway plays, and now a Sundance Festival Award, I must assume that he is only pretending to be an awkward, unfunny comedian struggling to find his voice, a role he is eminently successful at. Indeed, despite the absurd lengths to which both his sleepwalking (drop kicking a clothes hamper and protesting in his sleep that it's a jaguar), and his comedy career (how does anyone continue after bombing on stage like that?) go, the film never once caused me to sit back and cynically question whether things like this had happened. It all felt entirely real...

Things Havoc disliked:  ... which is sort of the problem.

Birbiglia is not only the main star of this film, but also wrote and directed it, and here we run into an issue that often afflicts projects this personal. A movie created entirely by one person and based entirely around their life story can fail in a number of ways, one of which is the 'so what' test. Events that have earth-shattering importance when they are happening to you are not necessarily going to translate into interest for a wider audience, unacquainted with the details of your personal circumstance and unconcerned with whether or not you succeed in your goals. That's not to say you can't get up on a screen and tell us your story, any audience should be willing to give a filmmaker the benefit of the doubt. But we need a reason to be interested in what you have to tell us, or else the film risks turning into the celluloid equivalent of that annoying bore who monopolizes the conversation for two hours at the office Christmas party to tell you how he rose above his Lawn Gnome addictions. And while Birbiglia is, I'm sure, a talented comedian who can tell a funny story when asked to, I'm afraid we see very little evidence of that here.

For one thing, there's nothing in the world quite as awkward as bad comedy, and to paraphrase Galvatron, there is an awful lot of bad comedy in this movie. I understand that it's intentional, that comedy is hard and that newly-starting comedians often bomb on stage, but it's still hard to watch a man get up on stage and fail to be funny. In a movie that tried to wring pathos or character out of Birbiglia's failures, this might have worked, but Sleepwalk With Me is Indie to a fault, and too afraid of appearing maudlin to give the main character any catharsis for his issues. Yes, in reality, this is probably how it went, but reality is no excuse for telling a boring story, and eventually the audience is left sitting through yet another unfunny comedy routine, just waiting for it all to end. And while we do get flashes, later on, of the more successful routines that he eventually came up with, the routines are never allowed to build any momentum. A joke (or a scene) draws a laugh from the audience, and then is abandoned, as the movie veers off into another aspect of Birbiglia's strange life. Much attention is paid, for instance, to the fact that Birbiglia begins to achieve success when he draws on his own personal life for his comedy, and his worries about whether his girlfriend will understand him doing so, all without ever paying off the question.

Even when he's not on stage though, Birbiglia's life is not just enough to hold our attention. The will-they-or-won't-they dance that he and his girlfriend do play out like slightly more self-aware sitcom formulas, their veracity notwithstanding, something not helped by the movie pausing every five minutes so that Birbiglia can explain what he was thinking at the time to us. High Fidelity worked so well because Cusack's musings at the camera served as an effective contrast to what he was doing between the monologues, giving us insight into his philosophies, tastes, and intentions of the character. Most of the time, he was not directly discussing what he had just done or was about to do, trusting to us to connect the dots between his oblique references and memories, and his present situation. Birbiglia's monologues consist mostly of him explaining his thoughts to us directly, telling us what should frankly be shown instead. This is not helped by Birbiglia's general manner of speech both in and out of monologue. Stand-up comedy involves a loose, stream-of-consciousness recitation of pre-planned material designed to make it all sound off-the-cuff. Film, a completely different medium than stand-up, does not reward hemming and hawing, and Birbiglia's colorless tone and broken cadence, which never varies between monologue, dialogue, and stand-up routine, lends the whole thing a feeling of contrivance and dispassion. This gives the film (in combination with the subject matter) a very Woody Allen-like feel, save that Birbiglia, try as he might, is simply not the same caliber of filmmaker that Woody Allen is (of course, given Allen's last project, neither is he).

Final thoughts:  This movie isn't horrible, but it never really rises above the level of mediocre. Its artifices and style, which no doubt garnered it all manner of awards from professional film critics, serve either to deaden what life is in this material, or simply try to disguise the lack thereof. There are a few moments where Birbiglia gives himself license to do what I assume he does best, which draw a couple of laughs (a joke involving him and his girlfriend discussing their worst fears is actually really funny), but these fade as quickly as they arise, as though Birbiglia was too afraid of being accused of narcissism to actually let us into his head. Ultimately, Sleepwalk with Me is a leaden, uninteresting enterprise, one that takes a story that is intensely personal and fails to convince the rest of us that it need be anything else.

Final Score:  4.5/10

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