Sleeper marks a real leap forward for Woody Allen. This is the first film he wrote and directed with a proper narrative and clearly defined lead characters. Everything still works in the service of jokes, but now the structure underneath is stronger.
Woody Allen plays the titular sleeper, Miles Monroe, a man who goes into hospital for a routine operation in 1973 and wakes up two hundred years later. What he finds is a strange police state, with robotic assistance for every part of life. In order to survive, Miles acts as an android butler, joins a gang of rebels, falls in love with an impressionable woman named Luna (Dianne Keaton) and kidnaps the nose of the country’s ‘Leader’.
Like Bananas, the story seems as if it will lend itself to scoring political points, but it’s really just an inspired setting for some comic set-pieces. Where this film differs from and improves upon Bananas is that it all takes place in one setting. It’s as if Woody has more confidence in his material. The fourth-wall gags are gone too; these jokes all come from the characters and the situations.
‘Have you ever taken a serious political stand on anything?’ Miles is asked. ‘Sure. For 24 hours I refused to eat grapes,’ is the reply. If there is any satire in the film, it’s on 70s activism, similar to the PFJ scenes in Life of Brian. Before he was cryogenically frozen in the 1973, Miles ran a health food store. Jokes about organic rice seem as relevant, and funny, today as they must have when the film was released.
The other source of comedy in the film is watching Woody flounder with technology. ‘I don’t like anything with moving parts that aren’t my own.’ A basic conceit, but it sets up a number of nice physical comedy sequences. Interestingly, in interviews Woody has spoken about his love of Charlie Chaplin during this time, and watching him play the (silent) robot butler certainly bears that out. Other critics have pointed out more of an influence of Buster Keaton, especially in the relationship between Woody and Dianne Keaton. It’s less of a classic romantic comedy pairing of opposites, and more like the Road To movies of two incompetents being saddled together on the run.
As funny as Woody is in this film, I think Dianne Keaton steals it. She’s game playing the physical stuff and playing a really, really dumb. She also does a surprisingly good Marlon Brando impersonation!
There is quite a lot of future Woody motifs in this early film, including the use of white Windsor Light font on black for the titles and the use of jazz as score, in this case music composed by Woody and performed with his own New Orleans style band.
However it is also a film unlike any other Woody has made. He would go on to make many films set in the past, but this is the only one set in the future. The look of this film is striking, and while the futuristic costumes and sets seem a little hokey, the architecture he found in Colorado to shoot is striking and brings a bold design sensibility to the visuals. It’s just one more layer on top of the jokes that shows the filmmaker improving over his previous films.
I enjoyed watching Sleeper again, though I think I still prefer Woody doing verbal comedy over visual. Still, the script is tight, the look is memorable and the story works. When people complain about all Woody Allen movies being the same, it’s these early films that really show how wrong that is.
Next week: Love and Death