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Wednesday, July 9, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 74.0° F  A Few Clouds


Mike Birbiglia's immaturity charms and chafes in Sleepwalk With Me
The thirtysomething teenager

Birbiglia clings to his childhood.
Birbiglia clings to his childhood.
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Mike Birbiglia is too old to play a teenager - or even a twentysomething - but his voice still cracks on occasion. He delivers his lines with long uhhhhs, sarcasm and an overall air of uncertainty. Sight unseen - which is how many people first came to him, via monologues on his comedy albums and NPR's This American Life - he could almost pass for a child. This makes perfect sense since his comedy so often concerns resistance to adulthood.

In Sleepwalk with Me, his directorial debut, he's teamed up with co-writers Seth Barrish, Joe Birbiglia and This American Life's Ira Glass to re-engineer the autobiographical material that underpins his one-man show and book of the same name. Birbiglia plays Matt Pandamiglio, a struggling comic who starts sleepwalking shortly after he moves in with his longtime girlfriend, Abby (Lauren Ambrose). As she and his family pressure him to start thinking about marriage, he adopts a hectic road schedule. For him, "escape" means doing standup in empty bars and hosting air-karaoke contests on college campuses. The movie's on its surest footing during these scenes, which detail Matt's fight to refine his comic voice and the camaraderie he finds in the comedy community.

As a voice in your ear, Birbiglia has a shambling, decent-guy appeal. For the most part, this charm carries over to the screen. His egocentrism, on the other hand, doesn't translate so well. Matt Pandamiglio is the only character who gets his own story and inner space; it's as if the other characters power down in between interactions with Matt. They spring to life only when the plot needs a nudge. (Rap twice on Abby, and you might hear an echo. This is no way to treat an actress with Ambrose's acuity and luminosity.) Like Birbiglia himself, Sleepwalk With Me is awfully likable, but I wanted it to be so much more.

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