Go with what you know. Mike Birbiglia employs, to stunning and lively effect, this most basic rule of storytelling in "Sleepwalk With Me."
Birbiglia who stars, directed and co-wrote (with his brother Joe, "This American Life" host Ira Glass and co-director Seth Barrish) is a stand-up comic with relationship issues and a potentially dangerous sleep disorder that causes him to act out his dreams. So his movie is about a struggling stand-up comic with girlfriend troubles and a sleepwalking problem.
He "plays" Matt Pandamiglio, who narrates his story directly to the camera usually while driving. Matt talks about his longtime girlfriend, Abby (Lauren Ambrose), and his inability to pull the trigger on a deeper commitment with her after eight years together.
Part of his hesitancy involves his stalled stand-up career, which has him tending bar at a comedy club but seldom performing there and when he does perform, his observational humor usually falls flat. He's much more lively when he's asleep, as his vivid dreams often end up with him waking atop furniture or standing in a running shower.
Birbiglia makes an impressive debut as a director, deftly balancing the gritty handheld camerawork of Matt's real life with colorfully stylized dream sequences (both well-rendered by cinematographer Adam Beckman).
The movie also impresses by squeezing a small budget (the movie debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in its microbudget Next program) for maximum effect. It seems Birbiglia did this by hitting up all his friends including a surprising array of stand-up comedians and even casting Glass (one of the film's producers) as a wedding photographer.
Birbiglia manages to hold his own opposite some strong actors, especially Ambrose ("Six Feet Under") as the fragile Abby. Also standing out in the cast are Carol Kane and James Rebhorn as Matt's parents, and Cristin Milioti (a Tony winner for the musical "Once") as Matt's soon-to-marry sister.
But, like any good stand-up comic, Birbiglia works best when playing off an audience or, in this case, the camera. When he breaks the fourth wall to reach us directly, telling us a funny and heartbreaking story he's repeated in his routine over the years, he turns "Sleepwalk With Me" into a truly eye-opening movie.
'Sleepwalk With Me'
Comic Mike Birbiglia connects with a funny and touching story of a guy dealing with career, a relationship and one troubling sleep disorder.
Where • Broadway Centre Cinemas.
When • Opens Friday, Sept. 7.
Rating • Not rated, but probably PG-13 for sexual content and language.
Running time • 80 minutes.