I saw Mike Birbiglia’s Sleepwalk With Me this week. I’m sure many of you are familiar with some or all of the stories in this film, as Birbiglia has had a lot of success with them, most notably on This American Life. In fact, Ira Glass is a co-producer of the film, which was made in coordination with the show.
I was struck by the opening of the film for how direct it was: Birbiglia is driving his car and talking to someone. It could, conceivably, be a character in the passenger seat, but I assumed it was me — literally, as I was the only person in the theater for an afternoon showing of the film. But once Birbiglia started to face the camera and talk directly to me, there was no doubt about it. While this type of wall-breaking isn’t revolutionary, it feels that way, if only for how warm and welcoming Birbiglia is as a storyteller.
But this seeming honesty gave way to a curious, and at times maddening, choice: many details here are barely fictionalized. The viewer soon finds out that the person addressing us in the car is not Mike Birbiglia, but Matt Pandamiglio. Some name, huh? Matt/Mike later works a show with a comedian named Marc Mulheren, played by comedian Marc Maron.
I was intrigued by these decisions because I assumed they were deliberate choices that would pay off at a later time in the film, given its focus on a character whose dreams realize themselves in his body. But such payoff never comes. And that disappointed and bothered me. Don’t get me wrong: Sleepwalk With Me is funny and smart. If you have the chance to see it, you should. You won’t regret it.
But a film about the blurred lines between dreams and reality seemingly had no interest in exploring the blurring going on within its own construction: this is a film that’s based on a book that’s based on stand-up that’s based on the creator’s life story.
And so this seemingly innocent choice to anonymize the names for the sake of fictionalizing the story contradicts some of the story’s most frank and honest moments, like when Birbiglia reminds the audience that we’re on his side, right before we learn about something awful he did while on tour.
Birbiglia won’t be the first or last filmmaker to construct a film around a character addressing his audience, nor will he be the first or last to attempt to anonymize a true story. But he did have a unique chance to do something unique with these devices, given their inclusion in a film concerned with an increasingly distorted reality.