Movie review: 'Sleepwalk With Me' a snoozer of an unfunny film

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Stand-up comic Mike Birbiglia explains that he's from an Italian family -- "but not real Italian, more Olive Garden Italian."

It's true, and it's mildly amusing. So is Mr. Birbiglia: a sort of kinder, gentler Seinfeld on white bread, not Jewish wry. He's the co-writer, co-director and star of "Sleepwalk With Me," based on his off-Broadway show. That show and this film incarnation of it concern his autobiographical challenges as a bartender-cum-comedian and boyfriend-cum-husband.

'Sleepwalk With Me'

2 stars = Average
Ratings explained
  • Starring: Mike Birbiglia.
  • Rating: PG-13 in nature for some mild sex scenes and language.

As Matt, he has long been in a relationship with adorable, adoring Abby (Lauren Ambrose), but he's still not ready to commit. We learn this, and other intimate details, as he speaks directly to us and the camera while driving: Abby had to persuade him to have sex for the first time.

That hurdle was overcome, but trouble started when they decided to move in together. The pressure to get married came less from loyal, patient Abby than from his overbearing parents (Carol Kane and James Rebhorn). "There's a lot of realities I have a hard time facing," he confesses -- not just his pending marriage but the career obstacles. This wannabe comedian has a basic problem even bigger than his awkward, clumsy style: He's not funny.

"You think maybe Cookie Monster has an eating disorder?"

That's his best line, and he can't get much of a laugh -- let alone a decent gig -- out of it until an ancient agent (Sondra James) grudgingly engages him as a last-minute replacement to emcee a lip-synch contest in Trenton, N.J. That "big break" leads to a trickle of equally grim gigs on the road, while the long-suffering Abby waits back home and the short-suffering Matt starts suffering longer from -- sleepwalking. It starts out as just annoying, but it escalates to life-threatening.

Trouble is, the combination of stalled career, stale relationship and somnambulism never escalates to the New Age reality-show comedy to which it aspires.

Mr. Birbiglia has enjoyed three Comedy Central specials and frequent talk-show appearances on Letterman, et al., but his real-life "big break" was being discovered and championed by Ira Glass of NPR's "This American Life" fame. Mr. Glass co-produced and co-wrote this "Sleepwalk" for him. (How does that work, I wonder?) Mr. Birbiglia's co-director is Seth Barrish (director of the original one-man stage show), and the other co-writers credited include Mr. Barrish and Mr. Birbiglia's brother Joe. Suffice to say, there are lotsa incestuous cooks stirring this clear broth.

It contains a few amusing sleepwalk/dream sequences, the best of which involves Matt jumping out of a La Quinta Inn motel-room window and landing in the hospital, where a doctor tells him he should be dead. "No," he replies, "you should be." But the potentially potent comic sleepwalking device is never fully exploited.

Instead, it's left to Ms. James, the dotty agent, and to Ms. Kane and Mr. Rebhorn, the parents from hell, to provide yuks, which they do so as much as the script allows. Mom just wants her darling son to be happy (and happily married to Abby); Dad just wants him to see a sleep-disorder specialist. But Matt's only therapy is stand-up -- at his audience's expense.

As schlemiels go, he's Woody without the wit. Ms. Ambrose ("Six Feet Under") is his latter-day Louise Lasser with "teeth that seem bigger than her head" and with great pigtails, but with too little to keep her (or us) occupied. Mr. Birbiglia hogs the screen self-indulgently, allowing a few cameos by such fellow troopers as Kristen Schaal and Loudon Wainwright III.

Only the mentorship of Ira Glass could have made this film possible (look for him, too, in a cameo as a wedding photographer). And only Mr. Birbiglia fans -- as a preexisting condition -- will find it very hilarious.

Beware of one-man stand-up shows converted into movies. Mike Birbiglia is so unfunny, he's -- not funny.

Opens Friday at Regent Square Theater.


Post-Gazette film critic emeritus Barry Paris:


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