One of the trickier plot devices for films to earn in their narrative are dream sequences. Dreams are easy ploys to lean on to move a film’s story forward … or undermine it. The filmmakers behind the new indie film Sleepwalk With Me could have been excused for over-using dreams in the film’s plot, as its main character suffers from a peculiar sleep disorder. However, they know the value of restraint. Matt Pandamiglio (Mike Birbiglia, also the film’s co-director) actually suffers from something called REM sleep behavior disorder (RBD), which makes him act out his dreams while still asleep. The disease makes him more than a sleepwalker. It is ominously warned in the movie his condition as a hyper somnambulist could lead to the death of his sleeping partner.

Though based on the real-life condition of Birbiglia, the film does not play up his malaise as the film’s main concern. Sleepwalk With Me is as much about a comedian on the rise and the dissolution of his long-term relationship as it as about a man suffering a sleep disorder. Lauren Ambrose plays his supportive but long-suffering girlfriend Abby. Their relationship is sweet and patient. She has a successful business coaching people through vocal exercises for relaxation. Matt notes how the students love her. Meanwhile, he struggles as a bartender at a comedy club where he patiently waits opportunities to fill between comedians who are late for their slots. The two have been dating for eight years since college. Seemingly stuck in a rut, they decide to move in together. As Matt’s sister is about to get married, the pressure mounts. Enter the sleep disorder, which becomes exacerbated when Matt actually starts getting gigs out of state that he drives to by himself.

During these drives Matt often speaks directly to the audience in the theater, charmingly set up at the start of the film with his request that attendees shut off their cellphones. He offers a running commentary of humor and hindsight to a story that could have seemed tragic as a long-lasting and caring relationship gradually unravels. There are tiny details that clearly reveal a human touch of experience and unselfconscious inclination to explore self-deprecating humor. When a female friend asks Abby where Matt’s at, she rolls her eyes and says he’s on the road doing his standup. The standup shows she has seen featured nary a chuckle and only her beaming applause topped off with a giddy but quiet “Yay.” Precious. He also gets paid less than he spends in tolls, gas and hotels.

Little does she know that Matt has found his stride cracking jokes on stage about their sputtering relationship like exploring this little insight: “I decided I’m not going to get married until I’m sure nothing else good could happen in my life.” It’s a subtle humor that represents a lot of the film’s jokes, which are not hilarious but more sad-funny. But if you’re grown up enough beyond the slapstick, superficial and sometimes misanthropic fare of most comedies, this film is a snug fit. There is nothing garish and overly sweet about it either. The wedding of Matt’s younger sister Janet (Cristin Milioti) of course only causes more anxiety for the unmarried couple. When a proposal does come from Matt it arrives as one of the most pathetic engagement agreements ever on screen but still smacks of human compassion. It feels more authentic than a lot of proposals in movies or worse: the TV news. By this point in the movie, it feels as if Matt and Abby are trying to peddle a tandem bicycle with flat tires and bent rims. A wreck is inevitable.

The relationship side of the film, though grim, is one of the film’s most unique characteristics, which is only heightened by Matt’s sleep walking sequences and the menacing warning of death by RBD. These scenes are never exploited beyond serving as witty manifestations of Matt’s anxiety. The skill of these writers, which also includes Ira Glass of the “This American Life” radio show, reveals a profound restraint that many other committee-writing groups should take notes from. It could have been easy to offer a series of escalating jokes of this poor man’s sleep disorder. Instead they appear sparingly, and they are never set up, which allows the viewer a moment of confusion that hints at the disorienting sensation Matt must suffer in these states.

Film offers the perfect medium to re-create dreams, thanks to its inherit quality of editing images together. And the filmmakers take full advantage of the splices. They make the viewer work a bit to understand what may be happening be it dream or real world or the place in between, but they never pander with over-stylization like slow-motion or hazy focus. Though it makes for a quick and easy revelation into dramatic irony, it also heightens Matt’s helpless quality.

Sleepwalk With Me surprises with its heart and humanity while consistently offering insightful laughs into people’s desire to pair off. On the other side of Matt and Abby’s coin are Matt’s patronizing father (James Rebhorn) and air-headed mother (Carol Kane) whose 40-year marriage is best described as firm though not solid or comfortable. Matt and Abby seem hopelessly caught between the weight of the impending marriage and the long-standing marriage. The struggle is a difficult thing to watch, but the film tempers it nicely with Birbigilia’s sense of humor, which feels like a pathetic version of Woody Allen. This movie could have been sad had it not been so humorous. When Matt suffers a sleep walking episode involving a dream of a missile coordinated on his position, the results are inevitably more than symbolic, and his final solution to cope with his problem almost seems like slapstick, but it also makes for an well-earned poignant closing image. Scariest of all, as the end credits prove, this is not a dream but based on a true story.

Hans Morgenstern

Sleepwalk With Me is Not Rated and runs 90 minutes. It opens in the South Florida area, this Friday, Sept. 7, at many indie theaters. Here they are (the Miami Beach Cinematheque held a preview screening for the purposes of this review):

Miami Beach Cinematheque – Miami Beach, FL
O Cinema – Miami, FL
Cinema Paradiso – Fort Lauderdale, FL
Living Room Cinema 4 – Boca Raton, FL

If you live outside of South Florida, it could very well be playing in your area now, but there are also other playdates planned throughout the year. A full schedule can be found on the film’s official website, here. There’s even a link to contact theaters that are not showing the film, so you might want to politely ask other theaters to host it.

(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

Last year, Bridesmaids received much hype for featuring women doing funny things in a script written by a woman. Though directed by a man (Paul Feig), the media hyped it as a “look-women-are-funny-too” because Kristen Wiig co-wrote the script (with Annie Mumolo) and performed in the lead role. There was even a serious push for a best picture Oscar®, despite it being base, fluffy sit-com material that goes down as quick and forgettably as fast food. An Oscar® for that? Still, at least the film maintained a focus on female characters that it never compromised.

Celeste and Jesse Forever finally arrives in wide release on a similar wave of hype following its Sundance Film Festival debut earlier this year. Rashida Jones, who is probably best known as a cast member on the NBC sitcom “Parks and Recreation,” co-wrote the screenplay with Will McCormack and plays the titular Celeste, with Andy Samberg taking on her other half. Though— like Bridesmaids— directed by a man (Lee Toland Krieger), Celeste and Jesse Forever seems to again been heralded as another entry of this “movement” of woman filmmaker/starring pieces in Hollywood. And maybe it could have lived up to such ballyhoo had it not spent so much time compromising the female perspective to tie up every loose end in the plot and concern itself halfheartedly with the man’s view in the couple. The film becomes one squandered opportunity, as indeed Celeste is an interesting female character … when she’s not pausing for someone else to steal the spotlight. She becomes lost in the haze of too many zany characters and sub-plots. What could have been a film of touching quality becomes a din of noise reaching too far for inclusiveness and appeal.

About 70 percent of the film seems devoted to Celeste and 20 percent figures on Jesse, while 10 percent focuses on other characters who are never fleshed out enough to even care about. These people include Celeste and Jesse’s engaged friends, Beth and Tucker (Ari Graynor and Eric Christian Olsen), Celeste’s wannabe queer media company boss (Elijah Wood), a pop star (Emma Roberts) whose image Celeste is supposed to boost in her role as a “trend forecaster” and a possible suitor for Celeste (Chris Messina). There’s also a few seconds of time devoted to the couple’s mutual dope-dealing friend (McCormack) … because pot dealers are so darn cute and funny in movies nowadays.

This “hip” couple is established at the film’s beginning driving in their hybrid vehicle, singing with gusto to Lily Allen. He’s a slacker surfer and graphic designer while she’s a pop culture specialist with such disdain for her specialty she authored a book called “Shitegeist.” Though they share jokes, like putting on phony German accents as they peruse a restaurant menu aloud together and simulating handjobs to lip balm as they mutually squeeze the tube, it turns out they have decided to divorce after five years of marriage. Instead of a fight that shows the couple’s dysfunction, these instances of cute, comfortable interactions serve to inform their reasons for divorce. As husband and wife they have only become best friends, not a romantic couple or a team with ambitions for children and careers.

Beth and Tucker sit across from Celeste and Jesse at a restaurant, as Celeste and Jesse put on their German accents. Beth and Tucker make faces of disgust, calling the soon-to-be divorcees creepy. Meanwhile, Celeste and Jesse put on their own faces of disgust as Beth and Tucker smooch at the table. Granted, the fiances’ behavior is portrayed as cutesy and over-the-top, but what’s really happening is a revelatory moment that shows Celeste and Jesse acting like elementary school kids too immature to have married in the first place. At the end of the night, Celeste and Jesse get drunk on wine when Jesse comes out of the studio in back of the house they once shared to help Celeste build an Ikea shelf. Neither can figure out the instructions (wink, wink. It’s Ikea!), so Jesse saws and hammers together a robot sculpture, and they have sex. That’s when Celeste realizes she must finally kick Jesse off the property and force him to find a job.

There exists a fine line in comedies of this sort. Where does the script serve to illuminate a character or give characters something witty to do in service of the script’s witty ideas? The actors seem to serve a script eager to get to the next witty idea of character development, that does nothing to reveal much growth or decline in the characters. They just seem to tread water. Characters in these comedies always seem funnier when they smoke pot, so both Celeste and Jesse separately get a turn at spend time with their dope fiend friend.

Then there are “original” ideas like the simulation of a hand job to the lip balm the two share more than once in the film, like some secret handshake. It becomes distracting in hollow humor from the true problems of these characters: they’re adult children. Instead of exploring why these two do not truly connect as a married couple, the film presents humorous situations that gloss over the characters problems and, in effect, problems in the script.

I had hoped for a more light-hearted take on the dissolution of a marriage than Sarah Polley’s little-seen masterpiece Take This Waltz (starring a couple of capable comedians in dramatic roles: Seth Rogen and Sarah Silverman). Instead, all I saw in Celeste and Jesse Forever was an amalgam of precious scenarios too concerned with finding superficial conclusions for every other character that appears in the movie (the tidiest and, in effect, most ludicrous of which involves a male model Celeste dates for a moment and Celeste’s way too quick taming of Roberts’ Ke$ha-like pop star, another wasted female character turned into a punchline). Though presented as an indie film, as its distributed by Sony Pictures Classics, the film compromises to the Classical Hollywood form almost slavishly.

When there are moments of dramatic, emotional diversion, out comes the unsteady camera and plaintive, quite few seconds of the character. The director never lingers enough to allow these respites from the din of story-telling and humor to sink in to any significance. These moments just seem out of place. The film seems scatter-shot and its over-reaching allows it to ring hollow. Had the film simply focused on Celeste and allowed these other characters to wander through, damn their own fates, this could have been a much more interesting and engaging film. Jones’ character only becomes uninteresting when she has to take a backseat to the other actors’ story lines. That happens way too often to allow her to matter, when it is she, in the end, who must do some growing up. But who wants to see an immature woman grow? Is that too risky a film for Hollywood? Shame on this cop-out that ultimately sells short what could have been an interesting female-led film.

Hans Morgenstern


Sony Pictures Classics will be releasing Celeste and Jesse Forever in South Florida this Friday, Aug. 24, at the following theaters:

Gateway 4 – Fort Lauderdale, FL
Cinemark Palace 20 – Boca Raton, FL
Cinemark Paradise 24 – Davie, FL
Shadowood 16 – Boca Raton, FL
Delray Beach 18 – Delray Beach, FL
Regal South Beach – Miami Beach, FL
Cinemark Boynton Beach – Boynton Beach, FL

If you live outside of South Florida, it could very well be playing in your area now, but there are also other playdates planned throughout the month. A full schedule of US dates can be found on the film’s official website, here.

(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)