Nowadays, most indie films are independent in the way that Blue Moon beer is Belgian (hint: it’s made by Coors--in Colorado--that’s Colorado, America). But comedian Mike Birbiglia’s new film Sleepwalk With Me is more like Piraat, the Belgian pale ale made…in Belgium. Now I want a beer.
Birbiglia not only wrote, directed, and starred in Sleepwalk With Me, based on his one-man stage show, he also did most of the advertising himself, took tickets and sold popcorn at the New York premieres, and is still doing post-screening Q&A at theaters across the country.
The film opens with Birbiglia’s character—named Matt Pandamiglio—giving a fourth-wall-breaking direct-to-audience request from to turn off our cell phones. It’s a scene that both reminds the audience of the movie’s one-man show origins, and evokes the opening scenes to classic comedies Annie Hall and High Fidelity.
In fact, Birbiglia’s nervous, defeatist character is reminiscent of much of Woody Allen’s more autobiographical work. That both Annie Hall's Alvy and Sleepwalk's Matt are professional comedians, and that the charming-if-squeaky Carol Kane is in both films doesn’t hurt the comparison.
Sleepwalk is not an out-and-out triumph; its story arc is far from perfect. The first ten minutes present the film’s two main conflicts—That Matt is unhappy in his relationship, and that he has a life-threatening sleep disorder. What follows is 90 minutes of the protagonist’s outright, self-destructive denial of those two facts, before he confronts them both in the final few scenes.
All this takes place over a delightful “inside baseball” look at what it’s like to be a budding comedian. The answer is: it’s horrible (but hysterical to watch). The supporting cast of Lauren Ambrose, James Rebhorn (The Odd Life of Timothy Green), Loudon Wainright III, David Wain (Wanderlust), and real-life comedians Marc Maron, Kristen Schaal, Jessi Klein, and Wyatt Cenac offer un-strained, naturalistic performances that serve as a testament to Birbiglia’s directing style. In fact, Ambrose is so human and endearing that it’s difficult to see why exactly Matt doesn’t want to marry her (of course, it’s mostly “not her,” but “him”).
Despite the iffy flow of the story, however, Birbiglia made exactly the kind of film a new filmmaker with no budget should set out to make. It is an endlessly sweet, hilarious, and reflective work that doesn’t bother getting bogged down by aspects of filmmaking that are the most difficult to do correctly (large-scope plot lines with profound moral lessons, action-packed set pieces, grandiose villains…).
With zero ad budget, Birbiglia and producer Ira Glass (host of This American Life) relied on public radio and podcasting sponsorship, and word-of-mouth (or word-of-tweet) to support their unconventional distribution method. Apart from a few set premiere dates, fans were requested to demand theaters in their area carry Sleepwalk With Me, an endeavor that raised the number of theaters showing the film from 34 to 170.
They also had Avengers director Joss Whedon on their side. Whedon and Birbiglia/Glass exchanged some playfully combative Youtube videos. Whedon claimed that giant studio blockbusters have inherently higher merit than little indie flicks, and the Sleepwalk guys playing the part of the hopeful underdog, looking to beat The Avengers’ box office numbers.
While that didn’t happen, and likely never could in any universe, the hopeful underdogs did do something entirely praise-worthy: They worked their butts off to bring a lovely little indie to exactly the right audience--the very people rooting for them to succeed--and they kept them laughing the entire way.