The sighting of an indie relationship comedy should not be a rarity, and perhaps “Sleepwalk with Me” isn’t all that unusual — but it seems like it is.
Maybe the movie is refreshing because it’s a throwback to a certain kind of post-“Annie Hall” run of relationship pictures, as it goes for wry little laughs and a few life lessons rather than giant boffo guffaws arranged around bodily-function disasters.
In other words, it stands out in a comedy world defined by Judd Apatow and Adam Sandler. Which is not such a bad thing.
The movie is the brainchild of stand-up comedian Mike Birbiglia, and is based on a well-regarded one-man show Birbiglia has performed since 2008. He stars in the film and directed it, having developed it as a big-screen project with participation from the National Public Radio show “This American Life.”
Not surprisingly, the central character, Matt, is an aspiring stand-up comedian, but the focus is less on his professional hardships (in this case, “aspiring stand-up comedian” is a euphemism for “bartender”), but on his eight-year-old relationship with Abby (Lauren Ambrose).
After eight years, people are beginning to wonder. So is Abby. Matt’s parents (nicely etched by James Rebhorn and Carol Kane) are especially curious about when Matt is going to grow up and get real.
Because Matt is incapable of telling Abby they probably won’t be getting married, he proposes to her instead. At least that will give him until next summer to get out of it.
As this is hanging in the balance, Matt is finally getting a few ground-level comedy gigs, which require him to drive around New England and be away from Abby. His breakthrough comes when he realizes he can actually make people laugh by talking about his love life in honest ways. It’ll work out fine, as long as Abby never hears it.
Life gives Birbiglia a handy dramatic device to underscore this story, which is his tendency to sleepwalk, a condition that sometimes becomes dangerous. Any correlation between this and his tendency to drift aimlessly through life is not coincidental.
The movie’s got a soft touch, as Birbiglia does with his offhand delivery. But in its quiet way, it makes some authentic points about a going-nowhere relationship, and the need to grow up, and the odd appeal of life on the road (Matt’s early gigs are rendered with authority, and I loved his childlike reaction to his first motel room).
A nice movie — maybe better as a monologue, but a nice movie. And Birbiglia doesn’t seem obsessed with his own genitals or bodily secretions, which makes him a novelty in movie comedy right now, and for which one can only feel grateful.
“Sleepwalk With Me”
Comedian Mike Birbiglia offers a tale of his relationship woes, early stand-up efforts, and his habit of sleepwalking, all in a wry, modest form that wears well. The movie avoids Apatow-sized laughs, which is not a bad thing.
Rated: Not rated; probably R for language.
Showing: Harvard Exit.