Sleeper

by Gauti Fridriksson

In 1973 Woody Allen unleashed upon us his version of a bleak futuristic society, a craven new world where the populace is kept in check by an ever-watchful government that feeds them mind-affecting drugs and cheap entertainment; where constant stimulation, bad poetry and a complete absence of risk keep people from ever actually experiencing what it is to live.

OK, now take the above premise, kick George Orwell out the door, throw in a frizzy-haired Woody Allen instead, sprinkle with generous amounts of slapstick, season lightly with a complementary smattering of Dixieland, and keep stirring until most of the sanity has evaporated from the stew. Now pour the whole shebang onto celluloid and you have Sleeper, Woody Allen's oddball mix of silent movie madness and futuristic paranoia.

Allen stars as Miles Monroe, a health-food store owner and clarinet player who walks into a hospital for minor treatment, falls into a coma, is frozen in suspended animation and wakes up 200 years later, in the year 2173. To say things have changed drastically is an understatement; people now eat nothing but multi-coloured gunk and ice cream sundaes, drive around in cars resembling little bubbles, get high by fondling a metal ball (Freudians, be quiet), are obsessed with the color white, and have a habit of periodically running around at hyper-speed and acting like madmen while Dixieland music pours from an unknown source. Strange, them future people.

Unfortunately for our neurotic hero, the government doesn't like the idea of him being there; bringing him back to life was "against government policy," and he promptly becomes a hunted man, which of course inspires a series of sped-up slapstick sequences, each of them funnier than the last. Through a number of coincidences he ends up posing as a robotic servant in the home of Luna (Diane Keaton, in her first role for Allen), a foppish poetess who leads a protected and extravagant life. But of course his disguise doesn't last long, and before long he's kidnapped her and they're on the run from the opressive government. Before it's over they will have joined the resistance (led by prominently chinned Jay Leno lookalike John Beck), held an unlikely part of someone's anatomy hostage (probably not what you're thinking), and gotten in all manner of strange adventures that I won't relate any further.

Watching Sleeper, I got the distinct feeling that when working on the script, Allen and co-writer Marshall Brickman just wrote down whatever came to mind and didn't really spend any time editing, revising or polishing it. There are flashes of absolute brilliance (parts of the dialogue are almost unbearably funny), but there's far too much so-so verbosity that robs the film of the comedic momentum it could have had. The film's slapstick moments outshine its dialogue, and the standout scenes are when Allen shifts into physical comedy gear; for example, there's a hilarious scene where he's just woken up from his 200-year nap and tromps around like a blissfully malevolent zombie, causing all manner of embarrassing mayhem for his doctors (who are being questioned by governmental security personnel).

The film takes a few pot shots at society, and there's some good satiric humor that's still relevant (or at least funny) today, but the social commentary did feel to me a little bit like a half-hearted take on subjects that a lot of other science fiction had already tackled far better by 1973. That is by no means a major flaw, though; while some might argue that including social commentary in a zany comedy of this caliber is a genre coupling that just doesn't gel, others will see this film for what it is: A light-hearted, out-of-this-world tribute to the silent movie, with some big laughs and that unmistakable Woody Allen touch. Plus, there's a mechanical dog who speaks with a British accent. And we just don't see that in films these days.

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