A sleeper hit is that rare film that succeeds despite a lack of significant budget or marketing.
Usually horror (Saw, Paranormal Activity) or comedy (Napoleon Dynamite, Juno, My Big Fat Greek Wedding) cult flicks have the best odds and some even go on to scoop awards (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Slumdog Millionaire). Sleepwalk with me meets most of the criteria for entering this rarefied field of little films that make big box office – it’s a low budget production that first made a ripple at Sundance, it’s a comedy and evolved from a critically successful off-Broadway one-man show and New York Times best selling novel. At the very least, it deals with sleeping.
Director, co-writer and star Mike Birbiglia shaped the story on his own painful experiences as a fledgling stand-up, a commitment-phobe and sufferer from REM Sleep Behavior Disorder. Plenty to work with there, although his alter ego, Matt Pandamiglio, bombs in his early on-stage routines (consisting of 11 minutes worth of random jokes) until he starts to incorporate some life detail into his material. It’s an honest portrayal of the grueling, often humiliating and underpaid work of a comic starting out, trekking miles between gigs to perform to empty venues or worse, to the heckling few.
As the laughs and audiences grow, so too does his time away from his long-suffering and beautifully incompatible girlfriend Abby (Lauren Ambrose). It doesn’t help that she records wedding reality TV and that his one-liners are increasingly based on their failing relationship and his fear of marriage. Matt’s parents (perennial father James Rebhorn and Carol Kane) provide ample cause for his anxiety, which manifests itself surreally into his dreams. They seem all the more pertinent due to his disorder, which results in him physically acting out his unconscious by way of sleepwalking, showering or in extreme cases, jumping through second floor hotel windows (based on an actual incident).
There’s much to like about Sleepwalk With Me, although it’s possible some might find Birbiglia’s deadpan, self-deprecating comedic style irksome. There’s certainly a touch of Woody Allen about him and the film itself, which again, some might find irksome. It might be the to-camera narration or the self-sabotaging relationship issues with a seemingly perfect partner (à la Annie Hall), but regardless Birbiglia as comic and director deserves his own audience for his warmly observed, charmingly modest and Sleeper-esque, potential sleeper of a film about sleep... and other things.