In a comic’s life, timing is everything. Not only the jokes but also being in the right place at the right time (especially when trying to snag an agent), having enough material to fill the contracted time on stage and—perhaps most importantly—knowing when it’s time for a change.
Curiously—but most likely not purposely—director Mike Birbiglia’s (along with a trio of co-screenwriters Joe Birbiglia, Ira Glass and Seth Barrish) portrait of an everyman standup trying to spend more time at the mic than pouring shots behind his inaugural venue’s bar, mirrors the stuttering attempts by the protagonist (Birbiglia also plays the incorigible yukster, Matt) to rise above a litany of adversity and shift into comedic flight.
The conceit of talking directly to the viewer while driving through an endless array of toll booths on the way to the next gig around/across the U.S. northeast serves the narrative relatively well—particularly as a bloody bit of foreshadowing will cause many to hang around for the payoff instead of changing channels in the otherwise slowish pace of the opening sequences.
The first half of the film is too unfunny-by-half and burdened with set pieces (trophy girlfriend Abby—Lauren Ambrose—pines for marriage but her long-time beau would rather just coast along in non-committal bliss; argumentative parents—James Rebhorn, Carol Kane—whose scrappy banter has been heard many, many times before; an initial road trip where—wait for it—Matt’s borrowed car breaks down in the rain and when finally at the remote college, the finally working funny man discovers a minuscule crowd expecting a lip-sync mouth-off instead of an evening of one-liners
Happily, a fascinating piece of narrative (Matt is an acting-out sleepwalker) begins to hit paydirt more or less simultaneously with the sad sack jokester’s realization that his audience will laugh aplenty when he merely relates his own personal truths. Who knew? (Well, Bill Cosby, Ellen DeGeneres, Jerry Seinfeld…)
So do hang on and tough it out through the early awkwardness: once the truth starts hitting the fan/fans (both on- and off-stage) it’s a production that no one will sleep through. JWR