Why Mike Birbiglia Sleeps Wearing Mittens

Matt Pandamiglio is notgoing to get married until he’s sure that nothing else goodcan happen to him. So goes the film adaptation of Mike Birbiglia’s one-man show, Sleepwalk With Me, co-starring Lauren Ambrose as Abby, the girlfriend to whom he won’t get married. Like most stories by and about stand-up comedians, Birbiglia’s first-person narrative flitters between his self-pitying isolationism and the genuine fact that the world shits on him constantly.

It’s easy to knock the comic; they need your adoration and they’re stingy in dishing it back. But the point of stand-up comedy is that they’re the ones tapped into what everyone else is presumably thinking, and they somehow have the courage to get up in front of a couple strangers in Burlington and, for twenty-three dollars, remind them that the only thing worse than divorce is staying married for forty years.

Between gigs, Birbiglia, or Pandamiglio, suffers from R.E.M. Disorder, which prompts the physical manifestation of dreams. That is, if he’s yelling at a jackal in his dream, he winds up actually yelling “jackal” at his laundry hamper. And if he jumps out a window in his dream, he actually winds up in a hospital for jumping out a window. And to further delay any proactive response is his condescending father (played by James Rebhorn, for the hundredth time) insisting that he do something about it. The dream scenes are done with notable reverence for how dreams actually feel (i.e. as though they were real), as per the request of Ira Glass, who co-wrote and co-produced the film and has stated in umpteen interviews that he loathes “dream sequences.”

And then there’s his girlfriend of eight years, whom he admittedly treats with an unfair amount of disregard, dragging her through a relationship that’s plagued by his own preoccupation with, you know, forging some kind of dignified life for himself. Flashback scenes paint the relationship as something he had pursued emotionally, while she, reluctantly and then casually, agreed to it in a way I guess you’d equate with this campus “hook-up” culture that journalists describe as something empowering for girls (“she’s the one who wanted to have sex!”). But presumably, there comes a time where even the autonomous ones start compulsively TiVoing wedding shows. And there comes a time where boys who graduated from liberal arts colleges ten years earlier realize they still can barely take care of themselves, let alone another person. What the film professes is that these kinds of people don’t need to get married. They need to stop pitying each other.

The whole film reminded me of a recent letter by the comedian Chris Gethard, a rambling but beautiful meditation on the fear of performing that culminates with this gem: no success we achieve will ever feel as great as we think, and nothing shitty will ever be as painful. Sleepwalk With Me hits this note. Birbiglia’s character doesn’t overcome his problems, but rather learns to deal. That’s maybe the best thing one could hope for. That, and having Ira Glass make a movie about your life.