More than halfway through "Sleepwalk With Me," comedian Mike Birbiglia breaks the Fourth Wall again, as he's repeatedly wont to do throughout the movie. He looks right into the camera lens and says this to the audience: "Before I tell you this part of the story, I want to remind you you're on my side."
Not me. Cute and all but I'd checked out long ago. By that point in "Sleepwalk With Me," I wasn't on his side at all. I was so much on the side of Lauren Ambrose, playing his girlfriend Abby, that I'd long since wished Birbiglia had gone back to his gig on NPR's "This American Life" and turned the entire movie over to Ambrose.
This is, frankly, the movie to see for all those who watched HBO's "Six Feet Under" and suspected that a teenage Ambrose would grow up someday to become a film or TV presence of such total adorability that she'd desperately need a screen that will let her take over.
This one isn't it. It's Birbiglia's baby. It's a tale reminiscent of the kind of thing Ira Glass loves on "This American Life" (he's one of the producers) and which Birbiglia, in a small comedy club, could no doubt turn into something genuinely touching and funny.
It's the movie's own fault that Birbiglia by that point has lost those of us in the audience who aren't fans of his in comedy clubs or on "This American Life." His movie is at such pains to show us what a loser he was everywhere in life - with a live-in girlfriend whose lovability is through the roof, with a family that's never worse than mildly annoying and with his stand-up comedy career - that you'd be happy to switch allegiance to his girlfriend's story and leave him with his comedy aspirations.
No such luck. In the solipsistic world of comedy clubs and storytellers on "This American Life," narcissists of Birbiglia's comedy generation have a new kind of self-esteem problem, i.e. they've been raised to have so much of it that they're surprised to discover "human beings don't like me. That's a hard reality to face." Especially so if you're standing on stage telling jokes and expecting laughter.
It wasn't a problem, of course, for an older generation of comedians who assumed that every audience was a potential enemy that had to be strenuously won over every night. When those people said they "killed" the audience, it was, at least in part, wishful thinking. ("Good evening, ladies and germs," wasn't just Milton Berle's self-mocking parody of a dreadful comedian's joke, it may have been, in part, his world view.)
For Birbiglia's generation of intimate clubs and radio audiences, you need them on your side. And when your movie shows us a loser who doesn't even know how to tell his good jokes and whose girlfriend would be vastly superior on her worst day to anything he'd be on his best, you've got a serious problem with your movie.
It isn't that Birbiglia is without charm. Or comic skill. When the movie shows us his autobiographical fiction coming into his own on the comedy club stage, you can see that, in life, he does indeed have an act that's charming enough to keep you on his side for a half-hour club set.
He's a funny guy - not as funny as he thinks but funny enough. "What am I going to do with my life? Where do I buy cereal?" are the comic questions funny folks ask on NPR. In movies, they're pleas for help from an audience that has paid good money to see you. And we're not even talking about the sleepwalking problem that gives the whole movie its other narrative thread.
For almost half the movie, he's a comedy club bartender, the fellow to whom his boss says, "We've got a situation in the bathroom. You're going to need the fuzzy mop." He's also the fellow the boss allows to do five minutes or so on stage when the other comics are late.
Somehow, he makes the connection which gives him a low-level career.
Which he chooses over his girlfriend of eight years, Abby.
Birbiglia isn't entirely devoid of shrewdness. The bittersweet ending of the film gives you every indication that he knows the regrets of the comedy club life.
Unfortunately, it also confirms that a good half dozen better movies could have been spun off this one. To name just two:
1. The trials and tribulations of a low-level comedy club tyro in full, from his first struggles to his maturity. We'd see a lot of the other comics, the cutthroat SOBs as well as the compassionate, helpful ones who genuinely think of themselves as an itinerant fraternity/sorority. We'd see the audience members open to a quick pickup, the exploitative club owners, etc. All are hinted at here and could have expanded into a better movie.
2. The smart woman who has made a foolish choice and stayed with an unworthy man for eight years even though she long ago should have moved on to a man who deserved her.
What you have instead is an invitation to "Sleepwalk With Me."
For NPR storytelling fans only, it seems to me.