Sleepwalk with Me (M) 4 stars
Mike Birbiglia, Lauren Ambrose, Carol Kane
DIRECTOR MIKE BIRBIGLIA
REVIEW LUCY GIBSON
You’ll like this if you liked Funny People, Safety Not Guaranted, 50/50
For most aspiring comedians there's nothing particularly funny about being broke and trying to make it on the stand-up scene. Yet Mike Birbiglia has mined those precarious first years of his career and turned them into comedy gold with his directorial debut feature, Sleepwalk with Me.
It is based on his critically acclaimed off-Broadway one-man show and Birbiglia wears his heart on his sleeve with this touchingly honest and exceptionally funny portrayal of the tribulations of life that many people - regardless of whether they've tried to deliver a line on stage or not - will relate to.
It's a tale about a barman, Matt, who aspires to become a stand-up comedian but just can't seem to get the break. At home too, his life has stalled.
There's nothing fundamentally wrong with his girlfriend Abby (Lauren Ambrose, Six Feet Under), who Matt fell blissfully in love with at university. "Falling in love is like eating pizza-flavoured ice-cream," he says. "Your brain can't even process that kind of joy."
It's just that the pizza-flavoured ice-cream, as it were, has started to go a little sour. His girlfriend starts recording TV shows about weddings and, gasp, babies, and Matt becomes increasingly anxious.
It doesn't help matters when, at his sister's engagement party, his dad Frank (James Rebhorn) decides to offer up his thoughts on the whole betrothment thing.
"Marriage is like (this) cake," he says philosophically. "When you first bite into it you can't imagine anything better and you eat and eat and maybe you've had enough cake."
Indeed, Matt starts to feel sick even before popping the question, his anxieties exacerbating his ignored sleepwalking disorder, which sees him act out his dreams in real life.
Ironically, as things unravel at home, a fellow comedian advises him to use what's happening in his personal life as fodder for his stand-up routine. Bingo. Matt strikes a chord with his audience.
What's so wonderful about Sleepwalk with Me is that this is a film about comedy that avoids all the cliches.
The humour comes not from contrived one-liners but a smart screenplay - which Birbiglia co-wrote with producer Ira Glass (This American Life) - based on a quirky and compelling story that's told by someone with a knack for weaving a good yarn.
Introducing the set-up from the start by means of talking to camera, Birbiglia draws us in and immediately we want to know how it's all going to pan out.
He's charming and likable and there's an honesty to his scenario. For goodness sake, we're living in a society where couples live together for years before getting married - or don't even plan to at all.
Sure, he's indecisive and has serious commitment issues. Yet by narrating the scenario from the present day, Birbiglia's Matt gives the audience, just as it does him, the benefit of hindsight, which in turn allows us to forgive him somewhat and empathise with his situation.
And we empathise with the supporting characters. Abby isn't a nasty person we wish Matt to break up with. She's just like any other girl who's in a long-term relationship and wondering why her boyfriend just can't seem to pop the question.
So too, Matt and Abby's friends - the husband who one minute extols the joys of having kids then casts a desperate "help me" look behind his wife's back - will strike a chord with childless couples.
His parents generate plenty of humour - from Matt's mother, Linda (Carol Kane), who shows her love by serving up cake she bought on the internet, to Frank's dry musings on life.
Punctuated with some oddball dreamscape sequences that see Matt acting out his dreams in real life, Sleepwalk with Me is an entirely funny, endearing and at times bittersweet feature.
The film's focus may well be on the struggles of a comedian trying to find his voice but Birbiglia has certainly found his.
Sleepwalk with Me is now screening at Cinema Paradiso.