It's Pollyanna-ish to complain when companies that are in the business of making money on movies make certain movies solely to make money. And yet, it seems to be widely acceptable to be cynical about big-budget movies that are made, marketed, and released in order to sate an appetite that already exists in the culture. But what about smaller movies made to capitalize on a pre-existing brand? This is what I wondered last week after watching a YouTube video in which Avengers director Joss Whedon, in an unconvincing deadpan, suggests a boycott of Sleepwalk With Me, an adaptation of an autobiographical one-man show by comedian Mike Birbiglia previously excerpted on This American Life. Birbiglia and TAL's Ira Glass are credited as screenwriters on Sleepwalk the movie; Glass is one of the film's many producers, and Birbiglia both stars and is credited as co-director.
"Disparaging" Sleepwalk as "this independent, heartfelt little movie that's not only about the human condition but also based on true events and is also interesting and fun," Whedon declares. "We shouldn't be watching these little, tiny films that people really care about and work on for years [on] end. We should be nurturing corporate spectacle, like good Americans."
This was all tongue-in-cheek, obvs, and even the trades got the joke. When Birbiglia and Glass issued a "response" video in which they literally do the math to figure out how many people would need to see their movie to outgross Whedon's, Hollywood Reporter touted the new clip as "the next stage in a jokey viral-marketing scheme for the indie feature."
"Jokey" is not the same as "funny"; the former is an estimation of intention, and the latter is a judgment of execution. It's the perfect word for the dueling viral videos; the muddled movie they promote is, if anything, not jokey enough.
Birbiglia plays a version of himself, Matt Pandamiglio. Matt is the kind of hapless young man who has so much trouble keeping himself alive that he can't hope to thrive, and among his friends and family, this difficulty has calcified into a joke. But he's not that young anymore — his forehead is spiked with the micro-bangs of the modern comb-over — and his longtime girlfriend Abby (Lauren Ambrose) is pushing for marriage. A would-be stand-up who hasn't written a joke since college and moons at working comics from behind a bar, Matt is clearly not ready for adult commitment, but he's also afraid to break up with Abby because she's obviously too good for him. This emotional quagmire's inevitable resolution is delayed when Matt lucks into a string of comedy gigs on the road.
Matt's idle thoughts are funnier than his actual jokes, an irony noted by Marc Maron, cameoing as more or less himself. Their encounter encourages Matt to start telling the truth about his own life onstage, which means revealing to audiences full of strangers the feelings he'd never reveal to his girlfriend. The road becomes the place where he can free himself of the albatrosses of past failure and the scary finalities of the future waiting for him at home. But what he has repressed returns at night: Matt's increasingly bizarre dreams, drawing on the themes and anxieties of the day, are accompanied by increasingly dangerous bouts of sleepwalking.
I haven't seen Birbiglia's one-man show, but the excerpt on This American Life was recorded in front of a live audience and focused primarily on the episodes of sleepwalking while eliding the drama of Birbiglia's personal life, and was played strictly for laughs. Sleepwalk With Me the movie is primarily a coming-of-age story, with Birbiglia the director weaving his character's nocturnal dramas into the narrative via dream/nightmare sequences, cutting back and forth between Matt's subconscious and glimpses of Matt in sleepwalking mode as seen by bystanders. These sequences ride a weird tonal line, maybe aiming to spilt the difference between comedy and terror but coming off as afraid to really go for it on either.
Because this material already exists as a one-man show, a book, and the TAL segment, in order for a movie adaptation to feel purposeful, it would have to build on the previous Sleepwalk incarnations by doing things that only cinema can do. If anything, Sleepwalk the movie, with its obstinately literal illustrations of Birbiglia's text, makes a persuasive case that the warm-bath introspection of the This American Life brand, and Birbiglia's own shaggy-dog storyteller brand, are inherently ill-matched to a medium that's more about showing than telling.
Whedon's video lays out a binary opposition between "little, tiny films" and "corporate spectacle," but as adaptations go, is there really that much of a difference between Sleepwalk With Me and something like The Avengers — or The Bourne Legacy or The Amazing Spider-Man or any of the other countless movies released this summer that function better as franchise way stations than as stand-alone entertainments? They're all movies that exist because there's a built-in audience for their existing properties, and big or small, it's okay to be cynical when they fail to justify their existence as anything more than that.