“What significance? We’re just four Jews trying to get a laugh.”
- Groucho Marx
I can’t speak for the audiences of the 1930s, but looking at them today, the films of the Marx Brothers are astoundingly amateur. They’re bad singers, bad dancers, the elaborate production numbers are poorly choreographed (if at all). Worst of all, Groucho’s jokes are incredibly corny, sometimes painfully so. Again, by the time I was born, mainstream entertainment had decades to build and improve on their foundation, so maybe my criticisms are unfair. But regardless, what persists, and what still endears them to the jaded ADHD-addled generation I belong to, is their touching eagerness to please.
Woody Allen’s Sleeper shares Groucho’s philosophy. It’s his last movie, for at least a couple of decades, to have no other ambition than to be funny. From minute 1 to minute 87, Sleeper has no romance, no serious conversations and no melodrama... just jokes. Sometimes, this can be a dreary prospect, but when it’s funny, it’s refreshing and impossible to dislike.
Woody Allen plays Miles Munroe, a Greenwich village health-food store employee. He goes in for a routine operation on a peptic ulcer, gets put to sleep, and wakes up 200 years later wrapped in tinfoil in a dystopian future. This central device is inspired by H.G. Wells’ When the Sleeper Awakes, but the movie’s themes and plots are borrowed much more significantly from 1984 and Fahrenheit 451. Like 1984, the nation is run by a totalitarian regime and a brutal, ruthless police force. Like Fahrenheit 451, the society has mostly regressed into laziness, idiocy and hedonism. The look of the film also seems to be roughly inspired by Francois Truffaut’s cheesy 1966 film adaptation.
I realize that I keep going on and on about Woody Allen’s increasing star power, but here we see his clout very explicitly pronounced. Perhaps the first example of a genre that would later include 1941, Ghostbusters and Evan Almighty, Sleeper is a big-budget blockbuster comedy. Most movies of this genre (Ghostbusters obviously excepted) end up as flops, crushed by the studio oversight and micro-management that accompany large budgets, but this is a rare example of a large-scale comedy under the hand of a single writer/director/actor who had earned a lot of trust and goodwill. Sleeper has elaborate sets, props and a large cast. True, it’s special effects don’t exactly dazzle, but it’s about as fancy as most 1970s pre-Star Wars sci-fi movies.
Miles has been woken up by The Underground, a rebel movement trying to displace the dictator of the former United States. Having been asleep for 200 years, Miles has no identity chips or birth records, making him a perfect candidate to fight the cause while avoiding capture. Before the cause is even fully explained to him, however, the police raid the rebel headquarters and Miles narrowly escapes as a fugitive.
Miles, a pacifist who mostly just wants to be left alone, disguises himself as a robot and ends up as the servant of Luna (Diane Keaton). This gives us the first look into the society of the future. Fahrenheit 451 commented on the growing influence of television and mass media by depicting a hedonistic, ignorant society where literature and independent thought were outlawed. In Sleeper, it’s a bit simpler. Everyone has devolved into stoned, hippie swingers — a neurotic intellectual’s living nightmare, basically. Luna is a “poet” with a PhD in oral sex. As Miles, still disguised as a robot, caters their dinner party, Luna and their friends get high off a futuristic orb-drug, go swimming and nearly have an orgy (“I think we should have sex, but there aren’t enough people”). Later, Luna reads her hilariously awful poetry about caterpillars turning into butterflies and party guests take turns in the orgasmatron, a household appliance that seems to do generally what it sounds like, although the specifics are left tantalizingly unexplained.
The police catch up with Miles, and soon he’s forced to flee once again. This time, he has Luna with him — she’s forced to go on the run with him after the police mistakenly assume she’s working with him. A wide variety of plot complications and slapstick pratfalls await them on their journey: a fight in a robot factory, an escape on a river in an inflatable suit, the discovery of enormous, genetically modified produce, a robot priest, a concussion that convinces Miles that he’s actually Blanche Dubois, etc.
In case the screenshots didn’t make it clear, all of the above is very funny. The humor ranges wildly, but surprisingly effectively, from flat-out screwball wackiness to deceptively sly commentary. Allen uses the futuristic setting as an excuse for his character to comment, context-free, on the 1973 world he used to live in, helpfully describing everything from the American Presidency (“Whenever the President [Nixon] went on foreign leave, the White House staff counted the silverware”) to the NRA (“they were an organization that helped criminals get guns so they could shoot citizens. It was a public service”) for his historically curious friends in 2173.
Woody Allen as stand-up comedian has never been better than he is here — Sleeper has by far the juiciest “Memorable Woodyisms” section so far. Woody Allen the physical comedian, however, is a better director than actor. He’s clearly modeled many of the movie’s physical comedy set-pieces after those of the silent comedy classics of Buster Keaton, Laurel and Hardy, et al (in particular, the robot factory fight sequence is reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times, and a daring escape from a wobbly ladder recalls Harold Lloyd’s death-defying clockface escape). Many of the set-pieces are brilliantly constructed, but his physical performance lacks the unpredictable, daredevil inventiveness of his predecessors.
Further explicating this film’s relationship with silent comedy is the film’s lively, foreground score — provided by the Preservation Hall jazz band with Woody Allen on clarinet (that, by the way, is a combination of people that I would love to see interact). I’m not a jazz-hater, but the score of this film is sometimes oppressive. It takes total precedence for large stretches of the movie, particularly during transitions and the film’s more physical moments. In fact, it has a tendency to awkwardly announce the arrival of a screwball sequence. As soon as a saxophone or jazzy piano kicks in, it’s time for a sped-up chase scene, or a slapstick fight sequence.
Anyway, back to the plot: Luna and Miles are on the run. Luna’s only interest, initially, is to return to the comforts of her telescreen and orgasmatron. But, like a suburban 18-year-old in a first year Political Science course, her once-closed eyes are quickly and widely opened to neat-sounding socialist idealism by a single charismatic figure — in this case the handsome leader of the underground rebel movement, Erno.
With Erno’s help, Miles and Luna set off on a mission to overthrow the mysterious, powerful despot. As it turns out, the dictator had secretly been gravely injured several years ago, and only his nose remained to rule over his empire. Disguised as the doctors assigned to re-build the leader based on the DNA from his one remaining organ, Luna and Miles steal the nose, and set the world of the future on the path to freedom.
Miles and Luna bicker incessantly at first, and Luna swoons over the handsome rebel leader, but if you haven’t figure out that they fall in love, after heroically saving the world together, you probably haven’t seen many movies. Or maybe you’ve seen too many Woody Allen movies, and are shocked at the prospect of him writing a happy ending for himself. But he does now, in this rare instance. They don’t get much of a romance, though — just a sweet exchange and a kiss before the closing credits.
Compared to Allen’s three previous proper directorial efforts, Sleeper is simultaneously sillier and more serious. It’s not as satirical as Bananas or romantic as Take the Money and Run, and the gag-to-minute ratio is up, but the movie is also, in a way, more sophisticated and intelligent. At the very least, it’s the funniest Woody Allen movie yet, and as I said in the review of Take the Money, it’s hard to complain about anything that’s funny from beginning to end.
- “You don’t believe in science, and you also don’t believe that political systems work, and you don’t believe in God... so what do you believe in?”
“Sex and death. Two things that come once in my lifetime”
- “It’s hard to believe that you haven’t had sex for 200 years.”
“204, if you count my marriage.”
- “I haven’t seen my analyst in 200 years. He was a strict Freudian. If I’d been going all this time, I’d probably almost be cured by now.”
- “You must understand that everyone you knew in the past has been dead nearly two hundred years.”
“But they all ate organic rice!”
- “This stuff tastes awful. I could make a fortune selling it in my health food store.”
- “I didn’t do anything! I’m a nice person, I have good goals, I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, and I’ve never forced myself sexually on a blind person.”
- “I’m what you would call a teleological, existential atheist. I believe that there’s an intelligence to the universe, with the exception of certain parts of New Jersey.”
- “What’s it feel like to be dead for 200 years?”
“Like spending a weekend in Beverly Hills.”
- “You learned about sex in school?”
“Of course, where did you learn about it?”
“My mother. When I asked her where babies came from, she thought I said “rabies.” She said you get them from being bitten by a dog.”
- “They’ll melt your brain...”
“My brain? That’s my second favorite organ!”
- “I’m not really the heroic type. I was beat up by Quakers.”
- This movie has a really great trailer.
- The rebels’ song (“Rebels are we / born to be free / just like the fish in the sea”) is the same song as that of Vargas’ Latin American rebels in Bananas.
- According to IMDb, Woody Allen discussed the scientific feasibility of some of the technology with Isaac Asimov over lunch.
- Woody Allen originally wanted to do this as a two-part movie — the first half showing Miles Munro in “present-day” (1973) New York, the second half in 2173. This idea was vetoed by the producers.
- The Sylvester Stallone/Woody Allen connections deepen: in Sleeper, Diane Keaton asks Allen to go into the sex machine with her, and he says he’d prefer to do it the old-fashioned way. In 1993’s Demolition Man, Stallone (who had similarly been transplanted from the past into the future) has a nearly identical conversation with Sandra Bullock.