By 1973 Woody Allen was a firm favourite with Cinema going audiences. Although not yet feted as a master by the critical community his films were highly successful at the box office. That’s not to say that he was simply pandering to the masses for financial gain. In retrospect you can see him developing his film making style over the course of these early comedies. Each new film showed that Allen was spending a great deal of time honing his craft. His Direction, writing skills and acting all improved over a hand full of very well received movies giving him the confidence to try new things and more importantly produce an interesting end product. When Sleeper was released it was seen as a new high in Allen’s career.
After being cryogenically frozen for two hundred years Miles Monroe (Woody Allen) is revived by anti establishment scientists who plan to overthrow the government. They need a person who is outside of the system, un-registered by the authorities and able to work on behalf of the rebels. The two hundred and thirty-four year old Miles seems to fit the bill. After the thawing process he is taken to the lead scientist’s home. Miles slowly adjusts to life in the twenty-second century with only a few minor hiccups and at least one freak out. Soon the Police trace him and mount a raid on the Futuristic house. In the confusion Miles is able to slip away. With the aid of bungling police and a handy jet pack he escapes by pretending to be a domestic robot. Unfortunately for Miles he is then pressed into service at the house of Luna Schlosser (Diane Keaton) a free-spirited and self-obsessed poet. Availing himself to the pleasures of the house during a party including the drug like orb he acts as if he is malfunctioning. Luna takes him to the factory for repair and a new, more pleasing, head. His disguise compromised, Miles is forced kidnap Luna and goes on the run.
With regard to his previous output, Sleeper is a big step forward. The story at the centre of the film is particularly strong. The central characters of Miles and Luna are well thought out and developed. In previous efforts some of the characters came across as just being created to enable a particular idea or joke. Not so here. It doesn’t hurt to have an actress of the quality of Diane Keaton for Allen to play opposite. Her transformation from the initially shallow and neurotic Luna to the more astute freedom fighter in the last third of the film is handled with skill. At one point during Miles recovery from assimilation he starts to believe he is Blanche Dubois. To help him Luna has to pretend to be Stanley Kuwolski. Keaton gives an unerringly accurate Marlon Brando impersonation right down to the pursed lips and nasally voice. Allen himself shows a greater degree of control with his character. He still comes across as a screen version of himself but the performance is more tempered and there are a few subtleties coming through that point the way to his future performances.
Parts of the film are homage to the age of silent cinema and the slapstick performers from that era. We get echoes of Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd and Charlie Chaplin in some if the more physical scenes. At one point while Miles is stealing a giant banana he is chased by the farmer. Cue much slipping on giant Banana skins for about sixty seconds. Very reminiscent of Chaplin as The Little Tramp. During these scenes there is usually no dialogue and the sound of ragtime Jazz fills the room (played by Woody and his band) adding to the silent movie mood. Even though the film is more cohesive there is still plenty of room for the slapstick antics and the fantastic one liners. The scenes are filled with wise cracks and comical word play. Again it is done in such a way as it enhances the film instead of detracting from it.
At the heart of the tale it is a classic love story. Two people from very different backgrounds (and centuries) are able to find a way to be with each other through the process of learning and understanding. The film has some serious points to make. The society in which the people live is a dictatorship where anyone with radical ideas is ‘re-programmed’. Freedom of choice is non existent During the early seventies health food was becoming very fashionable with studies showing that certain foods and drinks were perhaps not the best for a person’s health. The scientists of the future that feature in the film in turn debunk this and advise fatty food and cigarettes for the enrichment of mind and body. A wry observation on the fact that doctors used to advertise certain brands of tobacco endorsing their smoothness and health benefits.
Overall an accomplished film showcasing Woody Allen’s developing talents and still after forty years very, very funny. Highly recommended.