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'Sleepwalk' smolders with Mike Birbiglia's passive humor

The movie Sleepwalk with Me is made for devoted fans of Mike Birbiglia's stories on NPR's This American Life. The Brooklyn comic co-wrote, co-directed (with Seth Barrish) and stars in this adaptation of his one-man show. The film, based on Birbiglia's short stories, is produced by NPR's Ira Glass.

Tragedy undergirds Birbiglia's comedy: a rare yet major disease called REM behavior disorder. Birbiglia's "Matt," a standup comedian, has three worries. His career as a comedian is stalled. He has a girlfriend, Abby (Lauren Ambrose of Six Feet Under), who wants to get married and have a baby. Lastly, there's his own untreated sleep disorder, causing him to wake up with nightmares.

Matt bartends at a comedy club, where he's a comedian used for emergencies only. He seems to get more rest onstage than he does in bed at night; his style surpasses even the somnambulism of the laid-back Joel Hodgson.

Matt's problems coalesce when he hooks up with an aging, disinterested agent named Colleen (Sondra James). Colleen doesn't think much of Matt, but she books him at minor gigs all over New England. The woodsy road-trip scenes open up the picture, as do the streetscapes of well-off, leafy Brooklyn.

Still, the comedian's passivity both on and offstage grows wearying, though there's something about this puttylike underachiever that must bring out the maternal side of women, because Birbiglia has a noteworthy supporting cast of actresses. The quirky, lively Ambrose comes on with a lot of dazzle. Her Abby weaves her fine red hair into Slavic braids, and she rocks out at a party to a uke version of the 1927 tune "Side by Side."

The question of whether or not to settle down should have some pungency, especially when it's clear how badly Abby wants to nest. She's a determinedly sweet character, though, whose needs have no edge or pain underneath.

But even though Birbiglia is acting out his own personal life, Sleepwalk with Me is less funny than puny. There are such things as sweet little movies (Robot and Frank, for example), but this is relentlessly miniature, the tiniest film of the year.

'Sleepwalk with Me' opens Friday, Sept. 7, at multiple theaters.

  • 'Sleepwalk' smolders with Mike Birbiglia's passive humor


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