(2012) Dramedy (IFC) Mike Birbiglia, Lauren Ambrose, James Rebhorn, Carol Kane, Lucy DeVito, Philip Ettinger, Marc Maron, Emily Meade, Sondra James, Cristin Milioti, Amanda Perez, Amy Schumer, Ben Levin, Kristen Schaal, Loudon Wainwright III. Directed by Mike Birbiglia and Seth Barrish
Stand-up comedy is not a career for the faint of heart. It is also mighty rough on relationships. Aspiring comics spend long, lonely nights on the road and often utilize intimate details of their relationships as fodder for their acts.
Mike Birbiglia knows that better than most. His experiences as a struggling stand-up comic led him to write an Off-Broadway one man show, a regular gig on the NPR hit This American Life, a best-selling book and a comedy album, all of which this film is based on. In other words, on his own life.
Here he plays Matt Pandamiglia, the son of a driven, somewhat judgmental physician (Rebhorn) who praises his gay physician son (Levin) while constantly criticizing the son he views as a failure – unmarried, working in a bar, his career non-existent. He has a point.
But Matt isn’t entirely unsuccessful. He has a beautiful girlfriend named Abby (Ambrose) who puts up with his idiosyncrasies with the patience of a saint. They’ve been together eight years, pointed out in a somewhat snarky manner by Dear Old Dad when the comparison to Matt’s sister Janet (Milioti), who is wedding her beau after two years, is made.
Matt’s career as a stand-up comic is in neutral and quite frankly, with only eleven minutes of material – none of it any good – and the kind of delivery that would put a meth addict high as a kite instantly to sleep. Matt is also showing signs of sleepwalking, which concerns his father but also Abby as well, both of whom urge Matt to seek help.
Matt is a master avoider however, and pretends not to hear when un-pleasantries are brought up, or simply changes the subject. He is the very definition of passive-aggressive and isn’t always the sweet cuddly guy he seems to be.
However, when it comes to stand-up comedy, it’s often more who you know than how talented you are. He finds himself an agent (James) who gets him crap gigs in crap venues for crap wages. It keeps him on the road, which is just as well since it’s just as easy to bomb at home as it is to bomb somewhere else. However, as he starts working his frustrations with Abby, who wants to get married – and who in a moment of panic not wanting to lose her he has proposed to – into the act, his act begins to improve. The gigs begin to get better. The road trips begin to get longer. The relationship begins to crumble. And the sleepwalking gets worse.
Birbiglia asserts that all of this is true on several occasions and it has that ring of truth to it that comes from an autobiographical work. Birbiglia for the most part comes off as likable and charismatic, which bodes well for his future; however, he sometimes comes off as a real bastard which shows more bravery than his character Matt shows at any time here.
One of the nifty things about the film is that often it is difficult to tell if you are observing Matt’s life or one of his dreams until things start to get weird. It keeps the audience just off-balance enough to keep us honest. The stand-up comedy, particularly in the later sequences when Matt gets good at it, are pretty damn funny.
This is really all about Birbiglia. The other characters in the movie, even Abby who shares the most screen time with him, really don’t get a ton of development. Even the delightful Carol Kane, as Matt’s mom, is given little to do than to act batty and protective. Matt’s passiveness is often frustrating but this is definitely worth hanging in there with. When Birbiglia focuses on his relationships, the movie seems more energized. When focusing on Birbiglia alone, it loses focus a little bit. It’s not a perfect movie (few movies are) but it is certainly worthwhile enough to make an effort to seek out if you can.
REASONS TO GO: Birbiglia is engaging most of the time. Weaves dream sequences in skillfully.
REASONS TO STAY: Could have used more character development of the characters not named Matt.
FAMILY VALUES: A bit of sexuality and a bit of bad language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In order to play himself, Birbiglia lost more than 20 pounds.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/7/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews. Metacritic: 71/100. The reviews are definitely positive.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Punchline
STAND-UP COMEDY LOVERS: There are several sequences of stand-up comics, particularly Birbiglia, practicing their craft.
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Waltz With Bashir