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New films: The Words & Sleepwalk With Me

On writing and success: Two new films

As is often the case, we have two movies opening at the same time (in Sacramento) that have connected themes – both about individuals struggling to write their own material and jeopardizing their relationships in the process – one a novelist and one a comedian. And as is also often the case, the little indie movie is more satisfying than the big mainstream release, despite probably having a budget about the size of the larger movie’s food service costs.

“The Words” had the potential to be a really good film and story – but somewhere along the way it failed to deliver on that potential. The cast is good, with three major characters played by Dennis Quaid, Jeremy Irons, and Bradley Cooper – but none of them are at their best here. In his defense, Quaid wasn’t given much to work with, as an author who is giving a reading from his novel, and then later briefly discussing that novel with a graduate student groupie.

Most of the film’s action comes in the story within the story (within the novel being read by Quaid’s Clay Hammond) – about a younger novelist, or wannabe novelist, who has written stories but who has not managed to find a publisher for his work. Cooper plays Rory Jansen in these parts of the film, struggling with self-doubt and only able to get by financially with handouts from his frustrated father who suggests that maybe writing should just be his hobby. Until Jansen finds an old manuscript in an antique briefcase and, in it, finds the novel he wishes he was capable of writing. Naturally, a series of events occur that cause this to be published as though it were his own work – which might have gone well for him if the original author of the manuscript (Irons) hadn’t shown up.

This gives rise to a story within the story within the story, as Irons’ “The Old Man” character tells Jansen about the circumstances that led to him writing the manuscript – and we see these play out with Ben Barnes (probably best known as Prince Caspian) playing the younger Irons. And these scenes helped in causing the film to lose me as they never seem especially real or well acted – including one of those scenes of drunkenness that just looks like a sober person pretending to be drunk. But Irons also has problems playing approximately 20 years older than himself and seeming to focus more on the advanced age and infirmity than on the character.

This three-layered structure could have been more interesting and, indeed, there are multiple ways one might interpret the combined story, especially given that the primary part (with Cooper and Irons – and Zoe Saldana as Cooper’s wife) is itself a story being read by Quaid’s Hammond. The most literal interpretation is that Jansen is a younger Hammond – but it could also be a work of fiction, or a cautionary tale about bad choices in general. Hammond, while barely featured in the film, is to some extent a more interesting character – either coming clean about an earlier episode or willing to endure suspicions in that regard in order to gain fresh acclaim as a writer of a work of fiction.

Jansen is a simpler character, shown making a bad decision but without any great consideration of the topic of plagiarism or intellectual property in general – and with a jaded agent who implies this isn’t entirely unusual. The only aspect of the film that resonated with me was the idea that one can’t always make amends for wrong doing – sometimes we make bad decisions and simply have to live with them.  But overall, the film just falls flat – it’s ponderous and less interesting than its own description.

In contrast, “Sleepwalk With Me” is both a far less conventional film and also a far more enjoyable one. It breaks film convention by also being a story we are being told, but this time with the protagonist speaking directly to the audience during assorted, mismatched scenes (and occasionally even from within the flashback scenes being described). This is in keeping with the source material, originally a one-man stage show by Mike Birbiglia, who has also co-authored and co-directed the screenplay and stars as his own alter-ego Matt Pandamiglio.

Matt is an aspiring comic with the fundamental problem of being short of material – especially comedic material. The few times that an opportunity to go on stage arise, he falls back on the same tired material he attempted in college, with a delivery that undersells it even further. He lives with his girlfriend Abby (Lauren Ambrose) and as with Rory Jansen in “The Words,”also receives handouts from his father – albeit that where Rory pleaded, Matts attempt to turn them down.

Matt’s chances for success or ever booking a show would remain close to zero if not for an even more jaded or cynical agent than Rory Jansen finds. And Sondra James is hilarious in her deadpan delivery as Colleen, the agent who sees no talent whatsoever in Matt but books him anyway. As she says, “You’re not funny, but the good news is that this business has nothing to do with funny” – indeed, she seems more impressed by learning that he has access to a car. And so Matt goes on the road, on an unlikely but ever-expanding tour.

Meanwhile, he is also struggling with the sleepwalking disorder suggested by the title – as depicted in one scene where he is found clothed and showering in the middle of the night and tells a friend that he was dreaming, and the friend tells him that dreams aren’t supposed to be acted out.

As with “The Words,” there are issues and ideas here that aren’t really fully explored (such as the reactions of loved ones to material based on their lives) and the film is quite brief – but it remains light and fun in its delivery, even when awkward. At one point, for example, before recounting a lowpoint in his travels, Birbiglia as Matt reminds us that it’s important for us, the audience, to remember that we’re supposed to be on his side.

I’m going to guess that this is a film that standup comedians will enjoy – especially those who have gone from gig to gig on college campuses and in small bars. We’re told that “to be a comedian you have to be a little bit delusional” – with so much failure but the need to convince yourself that things are going well – an observation that might well hold true for many other professions.  And another comedian tells him that a casual remark is funny and should become a part of his act by saying “I thought it was funny but I’m a comic, I’m sick.”

Birbiglia is a contributor to NPR’s “This American Life” and the film is co-produced by host Ira Glass (who also has a cameo as a wedding photographer). I can’t speak for other cities, but in Sacramento at least this connection gave rise to a deluge of requests to the Crest Theatre to program this film – a facebook campaign that has paid off, to the benefit of both the campaigners, Birbiglia and Glass, and also those of us who might otherwise have missed it completely. And so I thank those NPR listeners and the Crest for its responsiveness and for its facebook page – I enjoyed it greatly and will also seek out Birbiglia’s current stage show or a future film adaptation of it.

"The Words" opens today in wide release and "Sleepwalk With Me" opens in Sacramento at the Crest Theater.

About the author

Tony Sheppard

Tony Sheppard

Tony is a Professor at Sacramento State, Co-Director of the Sacramento Film & Music Festival and a long-time writer, primarily on topics related to film and the film industry. He is an active supporter of the local arts community, an amateur photographer, and has an interest in architecture and urban planning topics. He is currently designing a 595 sq.ft. house on a very small infill lot in Sacramento.

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