Most romantic comedies tell the story of two people coming together. They meet, flirt, overcome obstacles and eventually realize they are perfect for each other. But “Sleepwalk With Me,” a power-nap-length comedy about an itinerant comedian’s interlocking struggles with his career and relationship, offers a negative image of the familiar rom-com story: It’s about two people who are already together and the ways they fall apart.
The movie, co-produced by Ira Glass of “This American Life,” is the autobiographical story of Brooklyn stand-up Mike Birbiglia, the movie’s writer and director. He stars as Matt Pandamiglio, a thinly veiled version of himself. The plot begins when Matt moves in with his longtime girlfriend, Abby (Lauren Ambrose) and the two inadvertently begin discussing marriage. Matt doesn’t think he’s ready, in part because he doesn’t have the rest of his life figured out. He wants to be a comic, but instead, he’s a bartender at a pub that hosts comics — and to make matters worse, his act is not very good.
After a while, Matt has a breakthrough. His comedy starts to work when he turns his act into a complaint session about his relationship. In the midst of everything else, he develops a serious sleep disorder that causes him to act out his dreams in increasingly dangerous ways.
Falling in love can be a funny thing. Falling out of love is less fun, but “Sleepwalk With Me” manages to find a fair amount of humor in it anyway. Despite boasting a comedian for a protagonist, its minimalist tone keeps it from being laugh-out-loud hilarious. But its droopy wit, sharply sketched comic supporting characters and self-deprecating tone are frequently worth a chuckle.
The chuckles, however, are interspersed with more than a few moments better described as cringe-worthy. Mr. Birbiglia tries to mine the passive-aggressive squabbling of his character’s relationship for humor, but it ends up just being discomfiting.
Part of the problem is that the movie renders some of those moments a little too accurately. Like a lot of recent shoestring-budget comedies — especially those emerging from New York — “Sleepwalk With Me” embraces a superficial mumble-core aesthetic. Rather than rapid-fire, cleverly scripted one-liners, many of the characters speak in stuttered bursts punctuated by “ums” and “ahs.”
The looping aimlessness of their conversations often is quite funny, but it also reflects the overwhelming uncertainty that plagues the characters. They don’t struggle to figure out merely what they want, but also what they want to say.
The same turns out to be true for the movie. Although its beginning and end stay focused on the challenges of maintaining a long-term relationship, the middle, in which Matt hits the road for a series of increasingly successful stand-up gigs, often seems to wander. Like its protagonist, the movie itself seems unsure about what it really wants to do with itself.
Meanwhile, the hard choices presented in the resolution are unappealing without being particularly revealing. All in all, “Sleepwalk With Me” is likable enough, but this self-centered, anti-romantic comedy is also hard to love.
TITLE: “Sleepwalk With Me”
RATING: R for sexuality, language
RUNNING TIME: 82 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS