Review: Sleeper

[Originally published in Movietone News 29, January-February 1974]

Sleeper is the funniest new film I’ve seen in years. Taking Off was the last recently made film that left me laughed out, and Sleeper reduced me to complete helplessness. In it, writer-director-actor Woody Allen projects himself into the year 2173 as a result of having been frozen for preservation some two hundred years earlier. The picture abounds in delicious detail, almost entirely of a satirical nature, but I’ll pass up the temptation to cannibalize his wit by recounting any of it, and talk instead about the progress his career is making.

I remember thinking upon seeing Bananas that it was a pity that Allen didn’t or couldn’t inform his pictures with a more sustained narrative, because it seemed to me that his comic talent lacked little but expansiveness and development, and with those qualities he could easily progress beyond the stature of an inventor and executor of genial sketches. Despite superficial appearances to the contrary, Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Sex actually helped Allen and his writer-collaborator Marshall Brickman move in that direction. Although it took the form of a number of vaudeville-like blackouts, while Bananas had been a single-plot picture, the blackouts all underwent more concentrated refinement than the loosely knit components of Bananas had received. Sleeper lives up to Everything‘s promise by operating with a well-developed linear plot and a reasonably consistent narrative structure. One can still sense through those structures Allen’s particular genius for amplifying just about anything conceivable into some enormity of satirical logic, but now those pockets of wit seem to be perfectly acceptable, well-integrated, and certainly agreeable components of the plot and narrative lines, rather than a series of sketches or turns haphazardly strung together.

The film gains from this care and attention through a strengthening and unification of its overall rhythm. Sleeper has all the genius of the earlier films, but it also has a new maturity and generosity of development that may well herald the emergence of Woody Allen as a real classic, one whose works will be watched and appreciated even in that apocryphal year of 2173. Providing that there ever is a 2173, and that it’s not as 1984ish as Allen imagines, the big demurrer that I’d have to add to my observation is that Sleeper is very closely tied to 1973 through the specificity of its satire, much of which will undoubtedly become obscure to future viewers. Nonetheless, it makes a wonderful mirror of our time. While Bananas sprang from the revolution-inclined late Sixties and satirized political power and ineffectuality, Sleeper concentrates on alienation—not the strident, self-serving and self-proclaimed sort so universally spouted in the late Sixties by the characters of Bananas and the people it satirized, but instead a more mature, genuinely experienced sort that shows the Allen persona to be less neurotic and narcissistic, less obsessed with his own problems, feeling more of a strange displacement from the comfortable discomfort of his old life, and wanting mostly just to return to it—until he starts to realize that the future isn’t essentially very different from the present.

Those coincidences and differences form most of the film’s verbal comic reasoning. Allen’s visual reasoning, which began to show real stylistic refinement in Everything, concentrates on a tight reduction of visual components to bare essentials, which conveys a sense of efficiency, sureness of selection, and bold but not blatant simplification. It’s a pleasingly clean visual style that lends itself equally to brisk comic development and the exigencies of varied cutting patterns, depending on how rapidly any given stretch of material is shaped. Allen hasn’t yet developed his visual style to the perfection of a Clair or a Tati; that may be because he seems more verbally than visually oriented. But he’s certainly making strong beginnings—and, on the way, increasingly hilarious films.

Copyright © 1974 R C Dale

SLEEPER
Direction: Woody Allen. Screenplay: Woody Allen and Marshall Brickman. Cinematography: David M. Walsh. Production Design: Dale Hennesy. Editing: Ralph Rosenblum. Music: Woody Allen and The Preservation Hall Jazz Band and New Orleans Funeral and Ragtime Orchestra.
The Players: Woody Allen, Diane Keaton, John Beck, Mary Gregory, Don Keefer, John McLiam, Bartlett Robinson.