The best thing on radio, for many years now, is "This American Life," ("from WBEZ, Chicago") Ira Glass' free-form hour of people telling stories revolving around one theme, with variations. sometimes truth, sometimes fiction, sometimes "found sound" (as the original intention of the show was). It has vaulted many of its contributors into the literary limelight, like David Sedaris, Sarah Vowell, John Hodgman, David Rakoff, Dan Savage, and Jon Ronson. For a brief time, Showtime bankrolled a television version of it, which caused some format grief ("will it work in TV, and if it does, will the radio version go away...like Dragnet?") but after two seasons Glass wanted a furlough back to its audio roots—no pictures, please. There've already been a couple movies made from certain segments, two being Steve Soderbergh's The Informant! and Unaccompanied Minors. Both started out as first-person narratives of the TAL variety and expanded, quite handily, into movie form and length. It can work, if the story has enough heft and resonance to it, and complication. In fact, TAL is made for movie grist, the grain being so different from "normal."
Sleepwalk With Me was born from "This American Life" and a particularly charming comedian named Mike Birbiglia and is based on his stand-up routine, which became a Broadway one-man show, which became a best-selling book and first aired on TAL in 2008. Birbiglia's story of suffering from a sleepwalking disease, especially when stressed, and the consequences of it just as his comedy career was taking off made for compelling radio. Birbiglia is honest, self-deprecating, and just a little vulnerable. And one expected the film version to be a variation of the one-man show/stand-up routine.
But what works in the hot medium of audio does not in the cold medium of the visual. Perhaps Birbiglia is not a compelling personality when doing his work, and his strength lies in the "better-heard-than-seen" arena. Whatever the reason, when he and co-writer Ira Glass decided to expand his career to a new medium, they decided to dramatize the whole bit, as if it were fictional, Birbiglia directed, with a competent crew of actors (I knew he wasn't playing it straight when James Rebhorn and Carol Kane showed up as his parents), and a "talk-to-the-camera"-while-driving narration that links everything together (which kinda, sorta "plays" but only produces one laugh-line, after a particularly surprising incident: "I KNOW! I'm in the future, also!" he shock-shouts to the audience). As a film, it's all over the map, strictly scripted, then ad-libbed, staying on-track, then completely spinning off into a tangent. Birbiglia is also a little scattered as an actor. Specializing in a brand of comedy that depends on dead-pan cutting down and reduction, it's a little subtle for out-and-out comedy—sometimes a sentence will go by before you realize "oh, that's supposed to be funny," especially when you're not hanging only on words for your information. Birbiglia is an odd performer, too, resembling Tom Hanks a bit, all forehead and weak chin, he's a tentative line-reader, and frequently a contrary one, often saying two different things one after the other. The whole thing comes off as weak Woody Allen, and what seemed to work very well as a narrative, comes off as merely "okay" on-screen.
It's disappointing, but also fascinating to see why the magic doesn't work this time out.
Sleepwalk With Me is a Rental.