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February 11, 2013

Benji Tunnell: 'Sleepwalk' translates comedy act to screen

JOPLIN, Mo. — Comedians are always looking to break into other media. TV and movies have been the natural progression for many, but the transition hasn't always been smooth.

Where Jerry Seinfeld was able to convert his observational comedy style fairly seamlessly by playing a slightly altered version of himself, someone like Dane Cook has struggled to adapt his obnoxiousness and lack of talent to either the big or small screen.

What it really comes down to is finding a way to move the stage persona to the screen. Once there, the actor can look to expand skills fit for more challenging roles.

When looking at the current crop of comedians, it is hard to spot those who could make the transition. Aziz Ansari and Joel McHale have found success in ensemble shows that don't ask any one person to carry the entire load, but Paul F. Thompkins has had a hard time finding footing in the acting world, and Patton Oswalt has made only limited headway in fostering a movie career.

It seems there is no tried and true formula to replicate comedy success in acting. But that certainly doesn't keep comedians from trying.

Mike Birbiglia has worked in the comedy circuit for years, releasing comedy albums and doing one-man shows. One of those, "Sleepwalk with Me" (available on DVD, Blu-ray and Netflix), was adapted into a movie of the same name, allowing Birbiglia to essentially play himself while trying out the movie waters.

"Sleepwalk" is the story of Matt Pandamiglio (Birbiglia), a bartender and struggling comedian looking to build his career while contemplating the future of his relationship with Abby (Lauren Ambrose).

As his career begins to gain traction and Abby begins to pressure him about marriage and kids, the stress starts to overwhelm Matt and begins manifesting itself in sleepwalking episodes. These episodes range from bizarre to dangerous, and Matt must decide how far to go with Abby and at what point to seek treatment for his sleep disorder.

Co-written and co-directed by Birbiglia, "Sleepwalk" takes its structure and many of its jokes from Birbiglia's own act and albums. The framework of the film shows Matt on the road breaking the fourth wall and addressing the viewer through the camera.

What could have been a cloying or annoying trick actually works well for the story being told, as we are watching a stand-up address the audience, so when he addresses us it seems natural.

Matt knows that he is a flawed person, that he has made mistakes, and he is upfront about them, acknowledging his stupidity as he recounts his tale. Both he and Abby are struggling to come to terms with a dying relationship; the route taken varies but the destination ends up being the same.

Birbiglia comes off as very natural in this role, most likely because he is playing a variation on himself. It's an interesting glimpse into the makings of a career in comedy as he slowly gains acceptance in the comedy community and acclaim on the circuit. I'm not sure how Birbiglia would adapt to a more challenging role, but in this film he comes off as likable, even at his most despicable. He's a sympathetic guy who is lost and doesn't mind admitting it.

Ambrose is also strong in her role as a supportive, frustrated partner. She motivates Matt to pursue his dream, even when that dream means weeks on the road, leaving Abby to sulk in an empty apartment. Ambrose portrays Abby with sadness as well as dignity, strong enough to motivate her man but also strong enough to know that she may not need him.

"Sleepwalk With Me" allows for an introspective look at the life of a comedian as well as the overwhelming confusion of love. It is a small film that aims for bigger things, and for the most part achieves them. Birbiglia is smart enough to know his limitations, and because he works well within those, he creates a sweet, sad and funny story that suits both his comedy and his character.

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