The comedian and storyteller Mike Birbiglia is an awkwardist. In his routines, he speaks awkwardly. On his blog, he makes awkward social and personal observations. His voice sounds as if it’s headed straight on, then it can take a big swing upward in a way that turns declarative statements into questions, the way certain drunk girls would if they were a whiny, homely-dressed man in his 30s. His best jokes are built around awkwardness, like the time he was moving a bed into his New York apartment building and a woman just let him in the entryway door without any questions. Obviously, that’s an urban no-no. But she said, “I’m not worried because a rapist wouldn’t have a bed like that.” He interrupts the story to interject that he should have said nothing. Instead, he said: “You’d be surprised.”
This is to say that Birbiglia, who’s from Shrewsbury, has done some wonderful things with awkwardness. I’m sad to report that “Sleepwalk With Me” isn’t one of them. The movie comes from some of Birbiglia’s stage material and pains itself to explain, in less than 80 minutes, how Birbiglia found his voice as a comedian, and how that discovery cost him a meaningful romantic relationship. But that feels doomed the minute you see that Lauren Ambrose is his costar. He’s Matt. She plays Abby, one of those flighty and free-spirited kooks. But because Ambrose can make looking at a fish tank seem emotionally complicated, she creates depth that Birbiglia’s point-and-shoot directing can’t really match. She’s alive.
The whole movie is about escaping that kind of depth and life. Matt has a sleep disorder in which he acts out dreams — he thinks, for instance, that he’s being doused with scalding tomato sauce when he’s actually standing in a bathroom shower. The dreams are anxious and defensive and guilty, and there’s some poignant truth about dead relationships in the script, which Birbiglia wrote with his brother Joe, the acting teacher Seth Barrish, and Ira Glass, the host of public radio’s “This American Life.” But the movie mopes and stutters and yawns. Matt’s real love is stand-up. And, eventually, he becomes the man we know to be Mike Birbiglia, the sort of comedian with an eccentric’s timing and talent for blending whimsy and defiance in jokes about, say, narcoleptic orgasms.
Carol Kane, James Rebhorn, and the smart, abrasive multi-hyphenate Alex Karpovsky appear a few times. But most of the movie is spent with a man who looks like the “Dexter” actor Michel C. Hall or a disheveled, somehow more adolescent Matt Damon. “You’re on my side,” Birbiglia says to the camera before a scene in which Matt incriminates himself. But the fellow in the self-portrait Birbiglia’s given us has no libido or charm or reason to live. Why do stand-up? Why continue breathing? With a live audience, we get an answer: He’s funny. With Abby, he’s the sort of awkward adolescent man that some women need an invention to leave.
The movie feels like a successful comedian’s rite: I’m famous, now I’ll tell my story in a visual medium. There’s no reason for Birbiglia to stop trying to find a non-stage format for that story. How many false starts did Louis C.K. have before “Louie” crystallized all his skills and talent?
“Sleepwalk With Me” traps Birbiglia inside his own head. He desperately needs a movie or cable series that wakes him up and sets his material loose on the outside world.Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @wesley_morris.