Sleepwalk with Me at Thalian Hall. I held the bag carefully in my seat.
When I finally got home, and took the brown cardboard box out, I was so proud to see that it was undented and untouched. I opened the box up, but I opened up the wrong end, the flimsy tabbed structure of it immediately came unfurled, and the cupcake fell frosting first onto my kitchen floor.
In Sleepwalk with Me, Mike Birbiglia is trying to decide if he is the kind of person who throws the cupcake out because society teaches him the floor is dirty, or if he is the kind of guy who eats the cupcake anyway. The cupcake is in this case, comedy.
The movie is ostensibly about a guy, trying to start a career in stand up comedy, and the disintegration of his relationship as this happens. It is a standard “be true to yourself and your dreams will follow” kind of movie. But it is also a telling look into the motivations and sacrifices of any one who wants to be an artist. Through voiceover narration and poignant affecting moments, Mike describes the confusion and shame that accompanies the desire to be famous, the disappointment of parents, the boredom of friends who have seen the same jokes not work over and over. He runs from state to state booking any show that will take him, while the “perfect girl” waits for him back home, with a dream of marriage and kids and a settled life.
In a pivotal moment early on in the movie, Mike is sitting with the headliner after a show in an empty bar after bombing terrible, and he cracks a joke “ I’ve decided not to get married until I know nothing else good is going to happen to me.” The headliner, a seedy looking experienced road comic, replies “That’s funny, you should say that on stage.” Mike protests, that is not the kind of comedy that will go over well with the girlfriend. But the next time he’s on stage, staring into that crowd of unmovable stone faces, he pulls it out in a moment of desperation, and all of a sudden, he’s funny.
It’s a moment of sacrifice - in that second, he has made the decision that anything, relationships, self respect, any boundary in his life, can be sacrificed to his art.
It's actually a sad movie, because Sleepwalk With Me is about the difference between people who like doing art, and people who are artists. To really be successful at any art form - music, writing, painting, or comedy, a decision must be made that this is what you do, at all costs. Everyone will start out as a failure, everyone will face the crowd that won’t laugh, they will pity you and get angry at you and you will hurt those who think they should be more important. If you can push through these years of shame and mockery and fear without deciding you are the worst person on the planet, on the other side is a chance to be good. Even though in his title Birbiglia is asking you to run away with him, to funnel your anxiety and fear into a delusional dream state, the movie is actually about saying fuck it, nothing else matters but this, because I am an artist and I can't picture having any life at all if I don't make this happen. I remember very clearly the moment I realized I didn't care about giving up my 401k to go back to school, because my only retirement plan is to make it as a writer. Like, there is no other choice.
After which, of course, you can still fail miserably. But that’s another movie.
Here in town, the powers that be arranged for a local comedian to do a set before each showing. Which is good exposure for them, however it was weird - to watch a local guy struggle with a crowd of mostly older artsy college town denizens (so much different than the normal bar night crowd), and then watch a movie about how terrible starting out in comedy is. It's either a brilliant juxtaposition on someone's part, or an artistic accident. But it somehow makes the movie seem even more sad.