In Sleeper (1973)Woody Allen plays Miles Monroe, a Brooklyn health food shop owner who goes into hospital for a routine operation in 1973, and wakes from a cryogenic freeze 200 years later. It’s a plot you’ve seen countless times before, from 50’s B-movies, to Matt Groening’s television series Futurama. Chances are, you have not seen it done quite like this though – this is a dystopic vision rendered with the lightest touch imaginable. It’s also rendered with a low budget touch as well, with aluminum foil seeming to abound on this future earth. When he awakes in 2173, Monroe is confronted by a strange world where self expression is severely frowned upon and which has seemingly inverted much of 1970s society. Before too long Monroe and love interest Luna Schlosser, played excellently by Diane Keaton, are on the run trying to reach an underground revolutionary movement.
Heralded as Allen’s breakout ‘classic’ by many, Sleeper is in fact an extremely uneven experience. Whilst that is a criticism that can be leveled at many films of a slapstick bent, more falls flat here than succeeds. The social and political jabs, generally very specific to 1970s America, are too obvious and contain none of the inspired nuance of the best dystopian science-fiction. That said, my knowledge of classic sci-fi film (which Sleeper apparently references frequently) is pretty sparse, so that may be part of the issue. Almost all of the key slapstick sequences are shot sped up, with ultra-intrusive vaudevillian music, techniques which can work at heightening the silliness. But here they just make it seem tired, almost like Allen had to do it this way to signal to the audience it was a joke sequence and they should be laughing. It is strange that the film is in many ways so uninspired, when the sci-fi farce concept is so fundamentally inspired and should be much funnier. Whilst what is on display here, from the technical aspects of filming through to the script, is much more refined then something like Take the Money and Run (1969), the spark that made a film such as that so endearing is gone. The only hint of real spirit comes in the form of the inspired performance by Diane Keaton, who is freed from the constraints of this future society by her run-ins with Allen’s Miles.
All that said, you will get a couple of good laughs out of the film. It features a banana peel joke for example that is so hilarious, gleefully weaving in the sci-fi and slapstick elements of the film perfectly, that you will lament how flat much of the rest of the film is. Unfortunately though in Sleeper, his fifth directorial effort, Allen’s shtick is already starting to feel a bit stale. Nothing illustrates this more clearly than the tokenistic insertion of one of his beloved riffs on Judaism toward the close of the film, which achieves nothing, except to remind you that this is a Woody Allen film. Not a terribly good one unfortunately.
Verdict: Schooner of Carlton Draught
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