This American Life politely enters the movie business with Sleepwalk With Me, an Ira Glass co-written and produced comedy-drama that marks the writing, directing, and starring debut (might as well get it all out of the way at once) of fan favorite Mike Birbiglia, in an adaptation of his bestselling memoir and Off-Broadway show of the same name. Taking a few pages from Woody Allen, another stand-up who made a smooth transition to film, Birbiglia narrates directly into the camera, telling the story of how his thinly fictionalized doppelgänger found his voice as a comedian/quietly confessional autobiographical storyteller, while simultaneously drifting away from his longtime girlfriend. Lauren Ambrose plays the girlfriend, a smart, dazzling woman he adores but can’t bring himself to marry, in spite of her unsubtle hints that it’s long overdue.
Birbiglia’s soul-consuming anxiety over the prospect of either proposing to Ambrose or losing her manifests itself physically in Rapid Eye Movement Behavior Disorder, a rare, dangerous disease that causes sufferers to act out their dreams physically, sometimes to the peril of themselves and others. At its most dangerous, the disorder causes Birbiglia to jump out the second-story window of a hotel in a nearly fatal accident that forces him to face some of his slumbering demons.
The co-writer/director/star begins Sleepwalk With Me by swearing that everything that follows actually happened, and with the exception of his rare, dramatic disorder, it’s easy to believe; it’s no surprise Birbiglia wrestled with commitment issues while struggling to find himself artistically in a strange, complicated, competitive field. Titular affliction aside, Birbiglia’s struggles are often universal: They fit the rough template of the coming-of-age movie, but the film’s colorful milieu in the tight-knit stand-up comedy world lends it a pleasing specificity and flavor. Thanks in part to Birbiglia’s warm narration and endearing presence, Sleepwalk With Me shares an ingratiating intimacy with This American Life and Birbiglia’s stand-up. It’s as if he’s telling his exceedingly slight, winningly modest tale of love lost and creative confidence found directly to the audience, without any filter to dilute its scruffy charm or intense likeability.