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Georgetown alum’s Sundance breakout is no snooze
“Remember: you’re on my side.” In his closely autobiographical film, Sleepwalk with Me, Mike Birbiglia (COL ‘00) plays a struggling comic who seems to realize that he’s not always very likable. A pizza addict and sleepwalker with dangerous tendencies, who makes countless slip-ups while questioning an idyllic relationship, Matt Pandamiglio (Birbiglia) can seem quite a pathetic specimen of humanity.
Yet when he directly faces the camera with a jarring frankness as he confesses his most painful mistakes, the audience can’t help but be on his side. Mike’s is a self-effacing breed of charisma that has the power to have you roaring with laughter in his most light-hearted moments and quietly rooting for him in his darkest.
The film, which is based on the Georgetown alumnus’s memoir of the same name, is the outcome of a filmmaking ambition he’s had since his college days. Having studied with screenwriting professor John Glavin (COL ‘64) for three years, Birbiglia said in an interview with the Voice that he “always wanted to make a film” but couldn’t fulfill his dream until he succeeded with his one-man comedy show. Though he made several short films at Georgetown, he went broke doing so, and subsequently turned to stand-up comedy as a more viable alternative.
After winning the “Funniest Person on Campus” competition at Georgetown, Birbiglia nabbed a job working the door at DC Improv as he tried to get time onstage. Reflecting on his time at the comedy club, he noted that working there was “like going to comedy college,” because he could see great comedians “go on stage with their own material and actually make a living doing that.” Birbiglia’s own path to greatness, fraught with heartbreak and several bizarre nocturnal experiences, was the inspiration for the Sundance Film Festival breakout and hilariously candid story that is Sleepwalk with Me.
Chronicling the progress of his comedy career along with the downward spiral of his sleepwalking condition, the film begins with main character Matt’s own college days and early romantic experiences. Since Birbiglia had his own first date with his college girlfriend at Mass in Dahlgren Chapel–“the most romantic spot on campus, obviously”—fictional Matt opts for the same tactic as he involves himself in an increasingly serious relationship with Abby (Lauren Ambrose).
In the meantime, he has his first issues with sleepwalking as he begins to mistake laundry baskets for jackals. The existence of this parallel world in sleep makes for a seductive subject for cinematographer Adam Beckman, who captures Matt’s increasingly elaborate dream sequences, which are inevitably interrupted by his confused girlfriend tugging him back to reality.
After college, he stays with Abby while working a job as a bartender with apparently hopeless comic ambitions. Eventually succeeding in finding his own small niche in the industry, however, Matt begins to book shows at college campuses across the country in the midst of an increasingly strained relationship with his marriage-oriented girlfriend. Excessive comfort eating and anxiety exacerbate his sleepwalking to the point that he jumps out of a hotel window. This defenestration serves as an extreme wake-up call for Matt, who then tries to get his life in order.
Co-produced by Ira Glass of This American Life fame and co-directed by Birbiglia, the film is much more than the sum of its parts. Unique as a documentation of a stand-up comic’s rather unglamorous life, Sleepwalk with Me is characterized by a breed of honesty that is rare in the contemporary movie scene. Similar to HBO’s Girls in its unwavering willingness to show its characters’ every foible and vulnerable moment, it is a comedy that breaks the fourth wall even in its own invitational title. At one point, Matt addresses the audience as he says, “I’m going to tell you a story and it’s true…I always have to tell people that.”
It’s easy to imagine everyone leaning forward in their chairs at this point, because he unfailingly makes you want to listen.