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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Wednesday, Oct. 22, 2014

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Mike Birbiglia (left) stars in "Sleepwalk With Me," in theaters now.
Mike Birbiglia (left) stars in "Sleepwalk With Me," in theaters now.

"Sleepwalk with Me" a funny, smart sleeper hit

Despite all of the laughs, comedy is a brand of entertainment based on failure. No comedian has become popular by doing stand-up about how great they are or how successful they are with women. No, comedy is a genre about taking one's greatest embarrassments, rages and all-around bad moments, and exposing them in the hopes of achieving a good chuckle.

It takes a brave person to become a comic. I suppose it's fitting that "Sleepwalk with Me," an indie comedy about a wannabe stand-up comedian, is a pretty brave movie. It's an honest look at the world of stand-up, while also a heart-wrenching look at a relationship on the edge of either marriage or oblivion. Most importantly, it's really funny, an important attribute for a movie about comedians to have.

Real-life stand-up comedian Mike Birbiglia plays Matt, a milquetoast 20-something coping with a lame job and an even lamer stand-up routine. Most of his barely 10-minute set comes from his first stand-up attempt in college, and the jokes haven't gotten better with age. Making matters worse is his stagnant long-term relationship with a vocal teacher named Abby (Lauren Ambrose "Six Feet Under").

Matt finally gets his break when he meets an elderly agent with plenty of tiny gigs to offer the fledgling comedian. He struggles at first, but as he begins to incorporate his real-life relationship woes into his set, he begins to find success. He also finds himself having vivid sleepwalking episodes that have him kicking imaginary jackals and hopping out of hotel windows.

"Sleepwalk with Me" is based on Birbiglia's (who also co-wrote and directed) well received comedy show and book about the comedian's real-life issues with his girlfriend and sleepwalking (the end credits feature photos of the actual hotel window he launched himself out of).

It's a surprisingly honest look at his life and often times unsparing. Birbiglia's cinematic doppleganger Matt is relentlessly non-committal, refusing to come to terms with his career, his relationship or his increasingly dangerous sleepwalking. At one low point, he even has to remind the audience that they're technically on his side.

The story is also very earnest when it comes to the life of a comedian, while also bringing the funny (something Judd Apatow's comedy epic "Funny People" forgot). It looks at the sad realities of the business – the traveling, the womanizing, the sense that some nights "human beings don't like you" – while also showing the hilarious and inspiring moments, like when a joke in a struggling set gets that first laugh or a supportive underground community of comics.

The film is produced by the people behind "This American Life" (host Ira Glass also co-wrote and makes a brief cameo), and it feels like it. Birbiglia narrates much of the movie, mostly by addressing the audience during a road trip, and the pre-credits sequence narration even teases the rest of the story as a NPR radio show would.

I normally viciously hate narration, especially voiceover, but in "Sleepwalk with Me's" case, it fits the intimacy of the story, as well as provides a nice tribute to the movie's source material. The narration also blends with Birbiglia's affable everyman character, whose conversations often sound like he's testing jokes and lines for his set. The audience is just another person he's trying his stuff on. Luckily, a majority of it is pretty hilarious.

Birbiglia's tale does meander after a while as it transforms from a romantic comedy into a road trip film. As a result, when the movie's emotional climax and resolution do finally hit, they seem to come and go without anyone in the audience or on-screen really noticing.

For the most part, though, Birbiglia has a good reign on the emotions, the humor and the pacing of the story. Plus, his dream sequences are perfectly on the right side of whimsical. A grumpy car ride with an audiotape psychologist that talks back is a humorous highlight.

Birbiglia may have lots of comedic tales about professional and romantic failures, but he can't count "Sleepwalk with Me" amongst them. It's a stand out stand-up tale.

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