Back before Woody Allen got serious in the late 70s, he was an heir to the great slapstick film comedians. Roger Ebert drops Buster Keaton’s name in his review of this film while Allen himself says that he thought of it as a tribute to two of his favorite comedians, Groucho Marx and Bob Hope – and they’re both right. There are slapstick moments in Sleeper that are as funny as anything Keaton put on film and self-deprecating verbal wit on par with Groucho or Hope, all wrapped up in a goofy, freewheeling science fiction story that’s really just an excuse for Allen to riff on his favorite subjects – love, sex, and death – and take potshots at the some of the ridiculousness of the early 1970s.
Allen uses the standard sci-fi approach of a futuristic dystopia to tell the story of Miles Monroe, owner of a Greenwich Village health food store who goes in for a routine surgical procedure in 1973 and wakes up in 2173, unfrozen from his cryogenic sleep by a band of underground rebels who enlist him to help stop the oppressive Leader from enacting the sinister Aries Project. That’s about as much plot as is needed because the rest works itself out in ways you’ve seen before, though it’s Allen’s wit and goofy scenarios taking off from these commonplace plot elements that make this film something special. Some of them are time-bound – jokes about Nixon, Howard Cosell and United Federation of Teachers organizer Albert Shanker – and funnier to audiences of the time, but others – as when he’s forced to impersonate a robot servant, a convenience-oriented society that uses an “Orgasmatron” instead of sex, or when he drops lines like “My brain? That’s my second favorite organ” or “I was beaten up by Quakers” that don’t require any translation from 1973 to today. And some of the film’s moments are downright strange – as when he believes he’s being crowned Miss America or when he and Diane Keaton suddenly drop in a gender-swapped routine from Streetcar Named Desire – and funnier as a result. With training from his standup years in nightclubs, Allen is great with one-liners and I wouldn’t want to spoil any more of them, but this is the first of his films where he shows that he’s equally conversant in film – nodding to silent comedy of course (usually in dialogue-free scenes that feature him playing ragtime clarinet alongside the Preservation Hall Jazz Band or The New Orleans Funeral Ragtime Orchestra), and also to contemporary sci-fi (he enlists Douglas Rain, the voice of 2001’s HAL, to play a sinister computer here as well).
And as a special bonus for Coloradoans, much of the film was shot here in Colorado – within the first few minutes there’s a shot of our famous Botanic Gardens building, several scenes take place in and around The Sculptured House (the “mushroom house” off I-70 just west of the city, often now called “the Sleeper house” due to its inclusion in the film), the Church of the Risen Christ on South Monaco is turned into a McDonald’s, some of the outdoor shots were filmed at the Table Mesa Laboratory of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, and so forth. Beyond the laughs of the film and the inevitable budding romance of Allen and Keaton’s characters, it’s fun for those of local privilege to location spot throughout the film. Sleeper stands as the finest film from a delightful era of Allen’s development, when slapstick and a ruthless desire to make people laugh was at the forefront of his mind. With the release of the classic Annie Hall in 1977, he started to take the relationships in his films far more seriously, and with 1978’s great Interiors he paid direct tribute to one of his cinematic heroes, Ingmar Bergman, rather than satirizing him as he’d done only a few years prior in Love and Death. I don’t value this period over his more mature works but there’s a verve here, a willingness to go to any lengths for a laugh that is missed in his later films, whatever other virtues they may have.
- Patrick Brown