It's not often that one's receptiveness to a film is affected by the identity of a producer listed during the opening credits. But it happens: When you see "Martin Scorsese presents," for example, you know that he's giving his imprimatur to a worthy project that could use a lift from his endorsement.
In the case of Mike Birbiglia's Sleepwalk With Me, the producer in question is Ira Glass of public radio's This American Life. Although many fine essayists and journalists have passed through his program, and I have personal knowledge that Glass is a conscientious, generous mentor to students of his medium, I've always had trouble making it through his show. To me, Glass' vocal mannerisms, his hesitations and faux-awkwardness, his self-deprecations and nasal tones, are just off-putting. While it may seem irrelevant to write about one of a film's producers, the association does inform my response to Birbiglia's winsome, droll film, which he adapted from his successful off-Broadway solo show.
But first, the film: It's the story of a shlubby nobody who becomes a shlubby somebody, told as an intriguing mix of stand-up, direct-address to the camera, re-enacted nightmares and conventionally staged scenes, with actors including Lauren Ambrose, Carol Kane and James Rebhorn. The premise is amusing and effectively sketched out as Birbiglia portrays a Mike Birbiglia-like comedian named Matt Pandamiglio. The Pandamiglio we meet is an unsuccessful stand-up comic who's about as docile and undersexed as his name suggests. Nonetheless, he has an adorable, adoring girlfriend of eight years named Abby (Ambrose), who encourages him through his hilariously awful routine (he goes years, apparently, without appreciably improving his 11 minutes of material). Time goes by, and Matt is still tending bar at a comedy club while occasionally getting a few minutes at the microphone when a scheduled act doesn't show up on time.
This ground-level view of the comedy business is very effectively presented. One point that's made in several scenes reinforces Woody Allen's contention that success is all about showing up. As the woman who becomes Matt's agent (a well-cast Sondra James) tells him, it's not actually that important to be funny. And at the outset, Matt isn't. Despite having little apparent aptitude for stand-up, he has one important prerequisite: He craves attention and adulation so much that he's willing to risk utter humiliation on the stage, again and again. This quality is sometimes known as narcissism.
There's another part to the story: Matt is a somnambulist, a sleepwalker, and the malady is serious enough that he's risking injury to himself, so much that Abby and his father urge him to seek medical attention. Birbiglia is evidently working from personal experience here, and for his alter ego, the sleepwalking seems to be a manifestation of Matt's unhappiness: his desire to escape his relationship with Abby, his overbearing parents (Rebhorn and Kane, both excellent) and his humiliating job in the bush leagues of the comedy scene.
Matt finally gets his chance with an unpromising college gig, which somehow leads to another crappy gig. Soon, he has a chance encounter with a star (Marc Maron, essentially playing himself), who offers crucial encouragement and, later, with a gleam in his eyes, a hint to Matt of certain other rewards of a successful comedian's life. While seeing Matt learn the tricks of the trade is satisfying—we share his relief when he finally gets an unforced laugh from the crowd—his success threatens the stability of his relationship with Abby.
My discomfort with the film comes from the way Matt reconciles his pursuit of his career with Abby, who is now his fiancée. Although Ambrose is appealing as ever, Birbiglia's solipsistic screenplay hasn't given her character much of an interior life. As a result, there's a simultaneous having and eating of cake going on. Birbiglia's alter ego is tempted by the freedoms offered by the road—the license to tell jokes that may be at the expense of loved ones, the lure of randy cocktail waitresses after the show—but he finds a dishonest and convenient way to justify it.
Which brings me back to my most recent experience with Ira Glass's show: his dustup with another doughy monologist, Mike Daisey. Last spring, Daisey was found to have invented details in his account of workplace abuses by Apple Computer's Chinese contractors. Daisey's work originated as a solo stage show and was subsequently broadcast as journalism on This American Life, which typically breaks up its programs with theater-style "acts." Daisey's tale made for great radio, as did the retraction (titled "460: Retraction"), in which the seething Glass flayed Daisey in a live, on-air confrontation.
Daisey may have had it coming, but for me, the most memorable part of the episode was during the last part ("Act III"), when Glass interviewed Charles Duhigg of The New York Times. Duhigg confirmed the substance of Daisey's reporting that yes, electronics manufacturing conditions in China are dreadful.
Glass finally said to Duhigg:
To get to the normative question that's kind of underlying all the reporting and all the discussion of this, the thing that we all want to know when we hear this is, like, wait, should I feel bad about this? You know what I mean? As somebody who owns these products, should I feel bad? And I don't know that I feel so bad when I hear this.
Honest? Sure. But it's the kind of honesty that conveniently lets oneself off the hook, which is my ultimate reservation about the undeniably intelligent, entertaining Sleepwalk With Me.
This article appeared in print with the headline "This American dream."