‘Sleepwalk with Me’: Slacker’s relationship played for laughs

"SLEEPWALK WITH ME" puts a laudably offbeat new spin on the familiar story of the slacker guy with the commitment problem.

It's adapted from a popular stage play by comedian Mike Birbiglia, a work that describes his matriculation as a standup comic and his disintegrating relationship with his lovely, tolerant girlfriend (Lauren Ambrose).

His career and his relationship are more than casually linked - Birbiglia struggles to find his voice onstage until he starts to make candid jokes about his troubled relationship.

These scenes of self-discovery are very well done, drawn from Birbiglia's experience learning his craft at obscure venues in the Northeast, given authenticity and life-on-the-circuit color by the cameo appearances of other comics. (There is a standout supporting bit here by the woman who plays his elderly agent, who is either a real agent or a very convincing facsimile of the real thing.)

Even better is Ambrose, who's done some vivid work in small roles (she was the hippie girl Almond in "Wanderlust"), and gets a chance to stretch here as the woman trying to take her eight-year relationship to the next level.

Even if that next level is down - "Sleepwalk" belongs to the growing category of romantic comedies about disappointment - and it's unique for the way it adds melancholy to the mix without losing laughs.

Birbiglia works here with an obviously limited budget, and shrewdly does not make overly strenuous attempts to make his stage play cinematic. He preserves the fourth-wall narration, its loose structure of strung-together vignettes, trusts the material to carry the narrative, and keeps it short.

This doesn't always work, but it does here. "Sleepwalk" has enough funny angles and lively performances (James Rebhorn and Carol Kane are his parents) to hold our attention - the title is drawn from Birbiglia's actual sleep disorder, which intensifies as his relationship anxiety advances.

He doesn't hit the metaphor too hard - is he also sleepwalking through his relationship, his life? - but he doesn't have to. He just has to keep telling jokes.

Contact movie critic Gary Thompson at 215-854-5992 or thompsg@phillynews.com. Read his blog at philly.com/KeepItReel.

Sleepwalk With Me

Directed by Mike Birbiglia. With Alex Karpovsky, James Rebhorn, Teena Byrd, Sondra James, Amanda Perez, Carol Kane, Lauren Ambrose, Teddy Cañez, Alberto Bonilla, Aya Cash. Distributed by IFC Films.

Running time: 1 hours, 20 minutes.

Parent's guide: PG-13 (for some sexual content and brief language).