September 12, 2012

Film: To sleep perchance to sleep

‘Sleepwalk With Me’ mostly watchable

‘Sleepwalk With Me’
Starring Mike Birbiglia, Lauren Ambrose, James Rebhorn and Carol Kane. Directed by Mike Birbiglia and Seth Barrish. NR; 1:30. LEO Report Card: B

“Great stories happen to those who can tell them,” Ira Glass is fond of saying. If anyone would know, it’s Glass, host and co-creator of National Public Radio’s “This American Life,” a weekly program that is one of the more clever and addictive hours on radio. The show has a nose for narrative: take a monologue it presented in 2008 called “Stranger in the Night,” from actor/comic Mike Birbiglia.

The piece was excerpted from “Sleepwalk With Me,” an acclaimed, one-man show that Birbiglia performed that same year in New York. Glass featured the wild and true yarn about one man’s battles with rapid-eye movement behavior disorder (aka sleepwalking) in a nightmarish, bed-buggy episode called “Fear of Sleep.” Since airing on NPR, the host set out to adapt Birbiglia’s work into a movie, which opens in Louisville on Friday.

For as good as the material is, the resulting film lacks some of the punch of the spoken-word version. The urgency and danger of the original “Sleepwalk” sometimes grinds to a meander when film actors are dropped in to dramatize “Matt Pandamiglio’s” struggles with a fledgling stand-up career, a ticking-clock girlfriend who chronically Tivos “Wedding Tales” (nice to see Lauren Ambrose from “Six Feet Under” again) and, of course, an increasingly freakish sleep disorder.

If great stories happen to those who can tell them, great films are written by those who can show them — as in the show-don’t-tell tenet of movie making. “Sleepwalk” is a pleasant enough ride and Birbiglia is charming in the lead role, but it does show that none of the four writers credited here are natural screenwriters. The script was penned by an actor/comedian (Birbiglia), his brother (Joe Birbiglia), a radio host (Glass), and another actor (Seth Barrish). This first screenplay for all four, although witty and a faithful adaptation of the play, isn’t plotted as freshly as it could be. The acted-out portions of the film can feel simply tacked on to Matt’s piece de camera narration, a technique that rings overly literal, or worse, as stale as the purposely dated references to Molly Ringwald and the A-Team. It can be hard not to recall Matthew Broderick addressing us directly in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.”

That said, “Sleepwalk” gains steam and becomes adequately filmic whenever Birbiglia’s explanatory voice-overs are abandoned. It’s a treat to watch him find his voice in far-flung comedy basements, decipher a conflicted relationship with Abby (“a keeper,” everyone insists), and when the pressures of his impending nuptials with her inspire a dream state both bizarre (i.e. a neck pillow made of pizza) and amusingly life-threatening (Birbiglia sleepwalks out of a hotel window).

On the whole, the film’s forgivable flaws and rich source material make for a mostly watchable flick. Fans of Ira Glass will want to see more movies like it and will likely get that chance. As was recently reported in LEO, “Pleased to Meet Me,” an Archie Borders-directed feature based on another “This American Life” segment, is currently being produced in Louisville.