When it comes to mining a medical malady for laughs across multiple platforms, standup comic Mike Birbiglia is a master.
He has already spun a standup routine, a segment on the radio show “This American Life,” an autobiographical book and a one-man off-Broadway show out of the sleep disorder from which he suffers. Now he uses it as a central plot point in “Sleepwalk With Me,” a beguiling romantic comedy.
Birbiglia, 34, has been diagnosed as having Rapid Eye Movement Sleep Disorder. It is a severe form of sleepwalking in which the sufferer, while still deep in the arms of Morpheus, rises to act out his or her dreams. This can be dangerous; Birbiglia once jumped through a glass window in his second-story hotel room to escape a missile that was heading toward him in a dream, an incident he uses in the movie.
In the semi-autobiographical “Sleepwalk With Me,” a slight, low-budget indie which Birbiglia also co-wrote and co-directed, he plays a fledgling stand-up comic in New York named Mike Pandamiglio. The movie follows Mike as he travels across the country, slowing mastering the stand-up trade and building a career.
The movie’s two other major plot threads, which are neatly intertwined, involve the escalating pressure a reluctant Mike feels to marry Abby (Lauren Ambrose), his longtime girlfriend, and the increasing severity of his sleep disorder episodes.
“I’ve decided I’m not gonna get married until I’m sure that nothing else good is going to happen in my life,” an anxious Mike tells a fellow comic (seasoned stand-up Marc Maron) late one night after both have performed at a comedy club.
“You should say that on-stage,” advises Maron, crisply sage in a cameo.
As pressure from Abby and his family mounts (Carol Kane and James Rebhorn play his parents), Mike goes on the road, honing his act and learning that the best jokes inevitably are the ones that hit closest to home.
It’s a truth that the movie has figured out as well, dealing in everyday types and situations (other than the sleep disorder) to which viewers can easily relate.
Birbiglia is all soft edges, both physically and in his delivery. He’s a milquetoast Everyman, more than a little confused by life but still hoping for the best. As he slowly sorts out his personal life, his medical woes and his career, he and this modest comedy win you over as surely as he does the on-screen audiences hearing his stand-up routines.
(Fans of “This American Life” will want to know that Ira Glass, the show’s host and executive producer, served as a producer on “Sleepwalk” and appears briefly in the film as a wedding photographer.)