CinemaDope: The Pajama Game

Folks here in Western Mass. have a take on National Public Radio similar to that of NRA diehards in other parts of the country: you can take it away when you pry it from our cold, dead, hands. For the vast majority of people in my circle, whether or not you tune in has long stopped being a question; when someone says “Did you hear that interview with John Malkovich?” you know they’re talking about Fresh Air and Terry Gross. Other names keep us company on our commutes, or over morning coffee, or during those interminable fund drives. No doubt about it: we like our NPR.

Mike Birbiglia may not have the name recognition of a Terry Gross, but the writer and comedian is one of the medium’s stars nonetheless. With a laconic but cutting wit, Birbiglia’s storytelling prowess landed him a gig on This American Life, another NPR staple that features slightly skewed looks at American everyman stories. He debuted there in 2008 with a piece drawn from his one-man stage show. Entitled Fear of Sleep, it told the hilarious and harrowing tales of his sleepwalking habit. It was a hit, and Birbiglia has been in regular rotation ever since.

Now the story of his nocturnal wanderings has been made into a feature film co-written by This American Life host Ira Glass. But make no mistake: this is a work of fiction. Or at least it’s labeled that way. Birbiglia quickly pulls away the mask: the character he plays is named “Matt Pandamiglio,” and right from the get-go he tells us that “I’m going to tell you a story, and it’s true—I always have to tell people that.”

That story is one giant metaphor: in it, Birbiglia/Pandamiglio is a stand-up comedian whose career has stalled in tandem with his personal life. The barely suppressed anxiety about it all manifests in increasingly dangerous yet hilarious sleepwalking incidents. (One revolves around a perilously high podium at the “Dustbuster Olympics.”) Birbiglia the actor is a winning everyman; Birbiglia the screenwriter is a sharp craftsman who knows how to keep a story from rambling. The film version is a trim 90 minutes, and it’s interesting, if you’ve heard his stage act or read the book—the story has had many incarnations—to see how and where Birbiglia makes his cuts to streamline the story and keep it moving forward.

Of course, none of that knowledge is necessary to enjoy the film. And despite that radio history, one needn’t be an AM acolyte to enjoy it either. Indeed, one of the joys of Birbiglia’s story is how traditional it really is, despite its sometimes outlandish outer appearance. In the end, he’s still a guy from Shrewsbury worried about his job and his girlfriend—what could be more normal?


Also this week: Hadley’s Cinemark theater is packing the week full of special events and new films. Picking up where Sleepwalk With Me lets off, Celeste and Jesse Forever is a modern tale about a couple who marry too young and then try to salvage their friendship during a divorce. Rashida Jones (Parks and Recreation) and Andy Samberg (Saturday Night Live) star as the troubled pair. The theater is also bringing back the double feature in time for the return of a cash-strapped student population. Showing this week is Wes Anderson’s latest, Moonrise Kingdom, paired with Woody Allen’s new To Rome With Love. One ticket will get you into both; check theaters for showtimes.

Also in Hadley are two classics: on the 13th, you can catch Jack Nicholson as Jake Gittes in Chinatown, the hard-boiled detective yarn about adultery, murder, incest, and… water? One of the greatest films yet made, it’s always worth seeing on the big screen. And on the 19th comes The Birds, the Hitchcock thriller here restored for a new screening and introduced by film historian Robert Osborne. You may want to leave the popcorn at home for that one.

Jack Brown can be reached at

Author: Jack Brown

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