The late, great Norah Ephron's 'Julie & Julia' was a flawed entertainment with a refreshing point-of-view: What if characters in a Hollywood movie were allowed to focus on their careers rather than just their romantic relationships?
Co-Writer/Director/Actor Mike Birbiglia's 'Sleepwalk with Me' is not a Hollywood production by any stretch, but it asks a similar question: Can you be happy if your only great success is a relationship?
Birbiglia plays Matt Pandamiglio, a moniker that feels designed by a team of lawyers. The name alternation was probably a smart move as nearly all of 'Sleepwalk' is based on events from Birbiglia's life.
'Sleepwalk' has had three previous iterations: as an audio segment on NPR's 'This American Life', a one-man Off-Broadway show, and a book of comedic essays.
Despite the story being so well-worn, it still engages in this latest (and hopefully final) medium. The screenplay (written by Birbiglia, his brother Joe, 'This American Life' producer Ira Glass, and Seth Barrish) is meticulously structured, following the beats of a comedy, while also shining a spotlight on the deliberately hurtful and selfish behavior that often takes place in relationships.
Matt Pandamiglio has been dating his girlfriend Abby (a very effective Lauren Ambrose) for close to a decade, but is dragging his feet about marrying her.
Part of Pandamiglio's fear of commitment revolves around his dissatisfaction with his job as the bartender at a comedy club where he sometimes performs.
Matt's anxiety about marriage begins to manifest itself through sleepwalking, a motif that becomes increasingly funny and dangerous as Matt fights hampers, climbs bookshelves, and has an alarming experience in a La Quinta Inn (no spoilers).
There have been been many Apatow-ian comedies about men who fear commitment and/or refuse to grow up, but 'Sleepwalk' feels like the best version of a poor man's 'Annie Hall.'
Birbiglia doesn't yet have the chops to pull off such a tender balance of comedy and real-life problems, but for a debut filmmaker, he shows great promise.
As a director, Birbiglia gets accomplished performances out of Ambrose and James Rebhorn (who plays Matt's father), but seems unsure as to where to place the camera, and the look of the film is decidedly cheap (Here's hoping studios will recognize Birbiglia's talent and give him a greater budget on his next feature).
These are minor quibbles with an otherwise delightful film. 'Sleepwalk' is certainly more insightful about relationships than recent entertainments such as the well-meaning but slight 'Celeste and Jesse Forever' and the way-too-safe and overlong 'Five-Year Engagement', which ran over two-hours, but felt like five.
'Sleepwalk' clocks in at a brisk 90 minutes. It is time well-spent.
'Sleepwalk with Me' opens today at the Bowtie Cinemas - Criterion Cinemas in New Haven.