AUSTIN — Alright, y’all! We’ve officially passed the halfway point of South by Southwest, which means the interactive, tech-savvy nerds (in other words, my people) have departed to be replaced by hipsters in skintight jeans and horrifyingly thin mustaches. Dudes, please shave.
But I digress. One of the highlights of South by Southwest this year was the screenings of Mike Birbiglia’s autobiographical fiction film – and directorial debut – Sleepwalk With Me; IFC just snagged its distribution rights. The premise is undoubtedly familiar to fans of Birbiglia, since it is adapted from his stage show, his stand-up, and his book. The story centers on Matt Pandamiglio (Birbiglia), a struggling comic in New York City who fears committing to marriage with his girlfriend of eight years, Abby (Lauren Ambrose). Those anxieties begin to manifest in worsening sleepwalking as his career takes off and Abby puts some pressure on Pandamiglio to propose.
Thanks to convincing and deeply personal performances from Birbiglia and Ambrose, the film is absolutely lovely. The tone deftly shifts from poignant to funny to raw and back again with nary a misstep. Even Birbiglia’s Woody Allen-esque asides to the camera that interrupt the narrative avoid rendering the story incoherent – testament to his connection with the story and with the audience.
The incorporation of Birbiglia’s real life experiences as a sleepwalking comedian into the narrative lends Sleepwalk With Me an element of raw authenticity rare in feature films. Says Birbiglia of the personal candor of the film, “I’d like to think that we’re part of a comedy movement right now that’s moving away from observational comedy into something more personal and real. It’s what I prefer because I feel like it has more heart to it. It has more teeth.”
Following the screening, I headed over to Esther’s Follies to see a whole slew of stand-up comedians who unfortunately had to negotiate the throbbing bass bleeding through the walls of the club from the street. The quiet, sarcastic Todd Barry said what we were all thinking: “South By Southwest is the world’s largest gathering of bands that need to turn down.”
Another bright spot was Jerrod Carmichael, who took the stage without delving into his prepared material, instead improvising some completely off-the-cuff crowd work for 15 minutes that resonated with this rowdy, interactive audience. He delivered the best zinger of the night where the music was concerned: “If you’re really quiet, and you listen for three seconds, you can hear the sound of a band not making it.”
The room’s rowdy energy was most evident when crowd favorite Doug Benson – in high spirits, of course – emerged. Benson riffed on the Festival before offering, completely improvised, my favorite one-liner of the week thus far.
Are you ready? Take a breath.
“There aren’t enough dueling piano bars that are to the death.”
Let it sink in, y’all. There’s nothing I can say to follow that, so stay tuned for more from Texas tomorrow.