Lay Down and Stand Up, by Scott Nye
Cinema has a long history of artists mining their interior lives for our contemplation and, sometimes, amusement, but just because you express something of yourself doesn’t mean there’s something of yourself to express. When Ingmar Bergman dove within himself, he pondered the limits of mortality, our concepts thereof, and the horrifying truth, as he saw it, that if God does exist, he doesn’t give us much thought. Woody Allen had similar notions, but was constantly asking us to laugh at him for even considering such matters. Thanks to films like Sleepwalk with Me, all we have left are the jokes, and increasingly less interesting topics to keep them company. Self-involvement is almost the default mode of low-low-budget cinema as of late, but in an increasingly media-savvy world, artists are putting larger and denser walls around themselves. “Look at me, but not so close,” they say.
So when I say Sleepwalk with Me isn’t a good movie, I don’t mean it’s not competently made (I guess) or “relatable” (insofar as we all have hugely mundane crises), nor is it bereft of some decent character work (I mean, James Rebhorn is in it, so, you know). What I mean is that it’s utterly pathetic. Mike Birbiglia (who also co-wrote and directed the film) plays Matt Pandamiglio, so direct an avatar for the actor that you wonder if the only reason they changed the name is so they could change everybody else’s names and not have to pay for their life rights. But I digress. The film is based off of Birbilia’s one-man show, which was in turn based off an appearance he made on NPR’s This American Life, and was also turned into a book. All told, Birbiglia has been living for four years off of the true story of how his inability to commit to marry his longtime girlfriend manifested itself as an increasingly dangerous habit of sleepwalking in the midst of his rising career as a stand-up comedian.
That’s not just the hook – that’s the movie. Right there. Dude couldn’t face himself, started sleepwalking, eventually talked about it onstage, found at least relative success. If you’ve seen the trailer, or even heard someone mention the film, you’ve mined most of what it has to offer from what seems like an interesting premise. But Birbiglia is unable to truly divulge himself onscreen, resting instead on the smug satisfaction that if he makes jokes about it, we’ll like him enough to carry the film. In one moment, while on the road, Mike (I’m sorry – Matt) cheats on his girlfriend with a very willing waitress. Birbiglia introduces this incident by saying, “Now remember here, you’re on my side,” pleading for our sympathies in a manner that could be genuinely self-deprecating if not for the fact that he barely even shows the incident – a wide shot reveals traces of movement inside of his car.
This shot is the whole film in a nutshell – a series of mentions and jokes in an effort to distance oneself from whatever would make this story worth telling, revelling instead in the true mundanity of his supposed crisis. When he and his girlfriend do clumsily get engaged, the conversation is shown as a series of mumbles in jump-cuts, because I guess writing the actual conversation would be too difficult or too genuinely vulnerable. And when they (spoiler alert?) finally break up, that “scene,” to which we have been building from the start, accords one line to each character. I am not overly simplifying in saying goes like this – “So…I think we shouldn’t get married.” “You’re right…we shouldn’t get married.” This is not the stuff of drama. It’s not even the stuff of conversation.
Cinema is an act of vulnerability. It requires tremendous bravery to put anything of yourself out there, never mind revealing something true and personal. But, frankly, put up or shut up, because to make matters even worse, Matt (Mike?) is not that interesting a guy. He has an interesting sleep condition. He has a few good one-liners. Otherwise, this guy is the smoothest of surfaces; all potential for edge or drama or any actually cinematic quality just slides right off him. He wants to cheat on his girlfriend but doesn’t, or he does but he wants us all to know how super-guilty he feels about it, or he has to drive thousands of miles for gigs and oh-look-isn’t-that-Google-map-soooooo-crazy-you-guys, but there’s no real, lived-in sense of the toll life on the road takes on him. Birbiglia is endlessly self-aware, but expresses no true awareness of the self.