Small budget movies with big heart feature comic sleepwalkers, caregiving robots& much-courted courtesans
Seeing as Sleepwalk With Me (at the Sundance Cinema) is a first-person comedy in which the protagonist-narrator uses elements of his romantic life as grist for his creative endeavors, and repeatedly breaks the fourth wall while offering seriocomic running commentary, and shares the most intimate details of his life (everything from fantasies to selfish misbehavior) while enlisting viewers not merely as confidants but virtual co-conspirators – well, it’s kinda-sorta hard not to think once or twice or twelve times about Annie Hall while watching this richly amusing and ruefully insightful indie feature.
But here’s the thing: Sleepwalk can be enjoyed on its own terms, for its own merits, as a beguilingly quirky and singularly witty piece of work, one that, not unlike Allen’s classic, casually smudges the line between invention and autobiography, standup routine and melancholy rumination.
It’s a twice-recycled tale, drawn from the personal and professional misadventures of comic performer and writer Mike Birbiglia, who previously used much of the same material in a 2008 one-man stage show. He adapted the latter for this cinematic translation with a little help from his brother, Joe Birbiglia, and co-writers Ira Glass (This American Life) and Seth Barrish.
In many ways, Birbiglia’s film is the best on this subject since Comedian, the illuminating 2002 documentary about Jerry Seinfeld’s post-sitcom career.
Birbiglia also cast himself in the lead role, a clearly autobiographical alter ego named Matt Pandamiglio, and hired himself as director. He may have served as driver, caterer and on-set security for the project as well, but there’s no indication of that in the closing credits.
Matt is introduced as an amiable but aimless lug who has reached that point in his 30s where’s he starting to get a lot of unsolicited advice about getting on with the rest of his life. His loving but overbearing parents – snappish dad (James Reborn), ditzy mom (Carol Kane) — think it would be a nifty idea for their son to marry Abby (Lauren Ambrose), his improbably sexy and sweetly supportive live-in girlfriend of eight years. And while Abby is too unassuming to actively push the idea herself, Matt can’t help noticing that she’s been TiVoing a lot of episodes of Wedding Tales.
But what Matt really wants is to be a standup comic. When we first see him on the job, he’s merely a bartender at a Manhattan comedy club where he’s allowed to take the stage only when another comic cancels or shows up late, and he’s not busy serving drinks and mopping floors. Even when he does begin to land gigs at far-flung clubs and college campuses, thanks to an aging agent who evidences more pity than enthusiasm while appraising his potential, Matt’s showbiz career appears permanently stuck in neutral.
And for good reason: He isn’t terribly funny. Indeed, he’s so unfunny that a more successful comic encourages his steady employment as an opening act. (“He thought you’d be great taking the bullet for other comedians.”)
Matt doesn’t score with audiences until he mines his relationship with Abby for comic gold. Unfortunately, some of his funniest gags – “I’m not going to get married until I’m sure that nothing else good can happen in my life” – speak volumes about his aversion to long-term commitment.
Even more unfortunately, his chronic bouts of sleepwalking – along with occasional dreams of desperate flights from danger – push him to edge of exhaustion, and dangerously beyond.
On one level, Sleepwalk with Me is a precise and persuasive examination of the anxieties, humiliations and occasional exhilarations experienced by standup comics (both struggling novices and rising stars) as they deal with the rigors of touring, the demands of audiences, and the lonely isolation of anonymous hotel rooms. In many ways, Birbiglia’s film is the best on this subject since Comedian, the illuminating 2002 documentary about Jerry Seinfeld’s post-sitcom career.
But Sleepwalk with Me addresses more universal concerns as it contemplates the all-too-familiar tensions that arise when ambition trumps relationship, and being stressed for success can undermine – or, perhaps, enable you to avoid – a long-term commitment to a lover. Just as important – and this becomes clear only gradually – the movie also details the interlocking self-delusions that often allow two people to convince themselves that they really and truly have a future together.
While watching Sleepwalk with Me, I must admit, I periodically found myself wondering why Abby never shows up for one of Matt’s on-the-road performances. At first, I wrote it off to Birbiglia’s desire to avoid, for as long as possible, the inevitable. (Surely, I figured, she would be mightily peeved once she realized how Matt talked about her, and their relationship, in his act.) But now, as I replay the movie in my mind, I realize that this, as much as Matt’s fleeting infidelity, should be viewed as a distant early warning sign of an impending split.
It’s not exactly a spoiler to reveal that Matt and Abby don’t remain a couple. But be forewarned: When Matt suggests that something even worse could have happened, you may find it difficult to decide whether to laugh or sign – or squirm with discomfort while experiencing a shock of recognition.
Spike Lee always has been a fiercely independent filmmaker. But Red Hook Summer (at the Edwards Greenway Plaza and AMC Gulf Pointe theaters) arguably is the first “Spike Lee Joint” since the wildly uneven She Hate Me to qualify as a true-blue indie feature. The small-budget labor of love has been slowly rolling out in limited theatrical release for the better part of a month now, and finally hits H-Town this weekend.
Red Hook Summer arguably is the first “Spike Lee Joint” since the wildly uneven She Hate Me to qualify as a true-blue indie feature.
It’s set in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn – not so very far away from the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood Lee memorably rendered 23 years ago in his still-powerful Do the Right Thing. Lee once again co-stars as Mookie, the wisecracking, slow-burning pizza-delivery guy he portrayed in that earlier film.
But Red Hook Summer pays more attention to Da Good Bishop Enoch Rouse (Clarke Peters), the bombastic minister and community leader who tends his faithful flock at the Lil’ Peace of Heaven Baptist Church, and Silas Royale (Jules Brown), Rouse’s 13-year-old grandson, who arrives from Atlanta to spend an eventful summer with Da Bishop.
Man and machine
Frank Langella has been enjoying a much-deserved career renaissance as a film actor in recent years, earning rave reviews (especially for the indie drama Starting Out in the Evening – which, coincidentally, also co-starred Lauren Ambrose) and an Oscar nomination (for his startlingly persuasive and unexpectedly sympathetic Richard Nixon in Frost/Nixon) at a time when many actors his age yearn for the good old days of occasional guest spots on The Love Boat and Murder, She Wrote.
In Robot & Frank (at the River Oaks 3), an indie drama set in the not-so-distant future, Langella plays Frank, a retired cat burglar who lives alone in Cold Spring, N.Y. with nothing more than his memories for companionship. Unfortunately, those memories are starting to fade, and Frank’s grown children (Liv Tyler, James Marsden) fear their father may place himself at risk without proper supervision. So they purchase a robot caregiver (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard) to look after the aging ex-criminal – who, not surprisingly, is less than enthused about sharing his home with a walking and talking “appliance.”
So just how good is Langella in this one? Unfortunately, there were no advance screenings here in Houston for Robot & Frank, so I can’t tell you for sure. But the demanding Richard Corliss of Time Magazine had this to say: “A feat of power, nuance and daredevil craft, Langella’s performance is a reminder that giants still fill the stage, and the screen.”
Money makes the world go ‘round
Documentarian Jennifer Baichwal contemplates the human cost of crushing debt throughout the world in Payback(Friday, Sunday and Monday at 14 Pews), a wide-ranging, globe-trotting film inspired by Margaret Atwood’s Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth.
Over at the AMC 30, a researcher seeking evidence of extraterrestrial life forms must take a down-to-earth approach to a pressing problem – the inadvertent dropping of his village from the map of India – in the Bollywood musical fantasy adventure Joker.
And a beautiful courtesan must decide whether true love or big bucks will rock her world as she is pursued by four disparate suitors in Children of Paradise, Marcel Carne’s marathon-length masterwork set in and around the theater world of Paris circa 1828. The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston will screen – at 6 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 5 p.m. Sunday — a newly restored print of the classic French drama aptly described by Roger Ebert as “not a historical epic, but a sophisticated, cynical portrait of actors, murderers, swindlers, pickpockets, prostitutes, impresarios and the decadent rich.”