If you’re a This American Life listener, you’ve probably heard comedian Mike Birbiglia. Birbiglia contributes regularly to the program, offering doses of deadpan humor in numerous episodes. One of these episodes, “Fear of Sleep“, is entirely about Birbiglia; it’s an excerpt from his 2008 one-man show Sleepwalk with Me, which chronicles his struggles with rapid eye movement (REM) behavior disorder. In 2011, Sleepwalk with Me was adapted to film and premiered at Sundance the following year to widespread acclaim.
The film is a semi-autobiography. Birbiglia’s plays his own avatar, named Matt Pandamiglio, a struggling upstart comedian who lives with his loving girlfriend Abby (Lauren Ambrose). Pandamiglio, in short, is a loser. He works as a bartender and performs the same, awkward routine he’s always performed since college during gaps in the bar’s regular performances. Abby and him have been going steady for eight years, and on the eve of his sister Janet’s wedding, the topic of marriage comes up and kicks off both Pandamiglio’s anxiety and the film’s conflicts.
Pandamiglio is uncertain about the future. He wants to be a comedian, but that’s not going so well. He brushes off marriage and children, though Abby drops obvious hints about both. This inner turmoil begins to manifest itself in sleepwalking episodes, which spiral out of control alongside Pandamiglio’s life and relationships.
It’s difficult to talk about the film without mentioning This American Life because the two share many stylistic similarities (not to mention that host Ira Glass produced the film and promotes it quite regularly on the radio program). Birbiglia interjects with narrations of Pandamiglio’s life, making the film feel a lot like something from This American Life‘s recent “radio drama” episode. It’s as if someone took one of Birbiglia’s regular radio segments, spliced it into video form, and had actors act it out.
Sleepwalk with Me also has the same slice-of-life sort of narrative that oftentimes appears in This American Life, and tells it with the same level of addicting skill. The beauty of This American Life is in its ability to milk intriguing yet highly relatable stories out of the seemingly mundane landscape of American life, and Sleepwalk with Me shares that characteristic. Across parents’ houses and small towns, Birbiglia’s story proceeds quirkily yet offers a window into the anxieties that we all share.
Despite This American Life‘s relative popularity, Sleepwalk with Me is still very much an indie film; what’s “popular” on public radio isn’t necessarily “popular” on the silver screen. Mass-market movies oftentimes indulge in fantasy (superheroes, beautiful actresses/actors), whilst any fantasies in the unvarnished Sleepwalk with Me are mostly corralled within the confines of REM behavior disorder. Visually, the film is elegantly simple rather than excitingly extravagant. There are no cute shots with Christmas-light bokeh, nor anything too innovative in the field of cinematography.
However, Sleepwalk with Me is nowhere near as dark as other indie films. It doesn’t have a fairytale ending, but it can still elicit smiles of contentment rather than furrowed brows of contemplation (not to say it’s incapable of the latter). Birbiglia translates well to the indie film format, and sleepwalking with him is a delightful experience.
Sleepwalk with Me—United States. Directed by Mike Birbiglia. First released January 2012. Running time 1hr 30min. Starring Mike Birbiglia, Lauren Ambrose, Carol Kane, and James Rebhorn.