Mike Birbigliaâ€™s funny and poignant Sleepwalk With MeÂ -- a bizarre comedy steeped in a concoction of neuroses, embarrassments of a mid-thirties commitment-phobe, and nocturnal wanderings -- is starting to look like The Little Story That Could. In 2008, it began as an off-Broadway one-man show and was picked up by public radioâ€™s This American Life; in 2010, it wasÂ published as a comedic memoir; andÂ since its January premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, itâ€™s been one of 2012â€™s most anticipated indie features.
In the film version (co-produced by the schlubby and self-indicting Birbiglia and beloved This American Life creator Ira Glass), as in the original one-man show, Birbiglia plays mediocre stand-up comic Matt PandamiglioÂ -- a slightly fictionalized version of himself with phobias about commitment, marriage and maturity that come to life during his REM cycles. Amid pressure to take his eight-year relationship to the next level, his personal and professional struggles are paralleled with bizarre sleepwalking episodes.Â The protagonistâ€™s predicaments end at best in embarrassment, and at worst, covered in shards of glass after strolling out of a second-story window. The laughs (and pathos) increase proportionately to Mattâ€™s problems; as his sleep disorder escalates, he becomes even more estranged from his girlfriend, Abby.
Birbiglia has assembled a formidable cast, with Lauren Ambrose as the successful but suffering Abby, and James Rebhorn and Carol Kane as Mattâ€™s needling parents. Â Some of the edgiest names in comedy round out the crew -- Wyatt Cenac, Kristen Schall, and Marc Maron lend indie cred and propel the once solo production into a true ensemble effort. Although Matt beseeches the audience directly at one point ("Remember: you're on my side!"), each player contributes to the story of a guy who canâ€™t get it together, awake or asleep.
A communal sensibility has also informed online marketing for the film, as Glass and Birbiglia have flooded the Internet with plugs for the premiere screenings. Not content merely to attend showings in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, the pair has taken a more hands-on approach: WearingÂ full box office attendant regalia,Â theyâ€™ve been depicted doing everything from serving concessions to mopping the bathrooms. Â If Louis C.K. can create an empireÂ on his laptop, then Ira Glass will serve you popcorn to get this movie seen.
The launch of this very personal project onto more than 100 screens across the country is testament to the power of Little Guy bravado and a tongue-in-cheek publicity campaign, but one Hollywood juggernaut is feeling pressure from the underdog.Â Avengers director and geek god Joss WhedonÂ has created a sardonic online boycott of Sleepwalk with Me, urging viewers to defend his box office supremacy. Glassâ€™s immediate video response to Whedon? â€śItâ€™s on.â€ť He and Birbiglia volleyed back with a request to audiences to see the movie enough times to unseat Avengers and beat its $1.5 billion income -- by one dollar.
Yes, Sleepwalk with Me is determined to make a dent in the Whedon throne by being the first mini-budget flick to make $1,500,000,001. Thereâ€™s been talk of persuading the population of Birbigliaâ€™s parentsâ€™ Massachusetts hometown to see it and some absurdist math to determine the average moviegoerâ€™s responsibility. (Apparently the 14,000 citizens of Dennis, MA would need to see the movie 5.5 times each to compete with Whedon. Could happen, especially since Birbigliaâ€™s parents have agreed to see the movie eight timesÂ â€śto make up for the slackers.â€ť) A challenge from the creator of Buffy shall not be ignored, and Whedonâ€™s plea to audiences is at once a sly jab at his own commercial success, Hollywoodâ€™s collective ego, and marvelous marketing for Sleepwalk.
Birbiglia concludes the gauntlet toss on Whedon with a quote from The Avengers: â€śWe have no quarrel with you, like an ant has no quarrel with a boot.â€ťÂ (Whether the Sleepwalk team is the boot or the ant remains to be determined; what do you think after watching the trailer below?) Independent movies, especially passion projects years in the making, have a lot to ground to cover -- and right now, this touching and strange comedy is pounding the pavement.