When people say they prefer Woody Allen's "earlier, funnier" movies, the one I always think of is 'Sleeper'. Allen certainly had earlier movies, and he also had funnier ones (this film preceded his first masterpiece, 'Love and Death'), but to me 'Sleeper' stands as Allen's purest comedy film. It's also his first of many collaborations with Diane Keaton, one of the most fruitful partnerships in all of American cinema. Looking back on it now, my appreciation for the picture has only grown.
Allen plays Miles Monroe, a neurotic health-store owner in the mid-70s. After going into the hospital for treatment on a peptic ulcer, complications occur and he's put in cryogenic sleep. Two hundred years later, doctors wake Monroe to enlist his help in a revolution against a totalitarian regime. On the run from the authorities, Miles ends up in the company of Luna (Diane Keaton), an air-headed poet who has fully bought into the consumer-driven culture of enslavement that Miles is trying to defeat. Miles ends up the ultimate fish out of water, completely lost in a world where nothing makes sense.
'Sleeper' bridges the gap between the sillier comedies that make up Allen's early career and the headier, more daring pictures that he would make in the mid to late 70s. On its surface, the film is a simple riff on sci-fi flicks, but buried within it are astute satirical jabs at modern society. Later in his career, Allen would bring his themes to the forefront of his works. Here, the comedy comes first. In fact, 'Sleeper' features several prominent sequences of pure physical comedy. Even small moments such as Miles' discovery that he's living two hundred years in the future are punctuated with broad comedic gestures. The film's resolution comes in the form of a cartoonish flattened bit of anatomy. There are countless sight gags, from Miles being unable to operate a flying backpack to him impersonating a robot butler trying to kill an unstoppable growing pudding. Groucho Marx once famously praised Woody Allen for being a unique, original artist, but it's hard not to see the clear Marx Brothers influence on him here.
Of course, like the Marx Brothers, Allen is known for his quick wit, and it's on brilliant display here. This is where 'Sleeper' separates itself from the director's earlier works. His previous films were silly and hilarious, and so is this one, but Allen begins to weave in social commentary with his silliness. Scenes where Miles explains twentieth century artifacts are both hilarious and poke good fun at social mores. And later, as we learn about the society he's fighting against, the parody becomes more pointed. The world Allen has created is not post-apocalyptic, not darkly dystopian, but simply one where people have become too complacent. In fact, the society seems to run pretty smoothly, with high degrees of personal freedom for its citizens. It ruthlessly attempts to stamp out the revolution, but the security forces are often hilariously inept. In fact, the society runs like a joke Allen himself wrote, the worst thing you can say about it is that it's an underachiever.
So what, then, are the revolutionaries fighting for? In the third act, Luna explains to Miles that the plan is to set up a Marxist Communist regime, which hardly sounds like an improvement. The underground ultimately looks as silly as the totalitarians, and Allen says as much at the end when he prefers to run off with Luna instead of joining either group, leaving the refashioning of society to people who care more about such things. By lampooning both sides, Allen effectively sends up our own society, which to this day still sees things in stark black and white, without room for complex ideas or emotions. By choosing Luna, despite her protests that science has shown that monogamous relationships don't work, Allen is saying that it's better to embrace the complex and the difficult than it is to let others make your decisions for you.
Again, these ideas are buried pretty deeply under a strong veneer of Allen's signature comedy. And in that regard, 'Sleeper' is one of his best. The one-liners are fast and furious, and Diane Keaton's chemistry with Allen is immediately apparent. Everyone knows their pairing because of 'Annie Hall', but even here in their first collaboration their sense of timing is absolutely impeccable. Diane Keaton is especially excellent, being hilariously ditzy and later showing off her chops in a sequence where she has to play different roles in order to help Miles regain his memory. Her penchant for comedy is even more impressive when you consider that she did 'Sleeper' in between both 'Godfather' movies. Allen is of course hilarious, handling all the material with a deft touch that proves how truly talented he is.
The movie also parodies several high profile sci-fi films of the period, with some great design touches that perfectly mock the futuristic visions of films like '2001: A Space Odyssey'. In particular, a scene where Miles tries to sit on a chair the width of a coat hangar is especially memorable. The whole film stands up today as a prime example of Allen's "early, funny" movies.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Fox Home Entertainment presents 'Sleeper' in a minimalist package, with a single image of Allen as a robot butler on the front. Inside of the eco-case is a 25 GB disc that contains the film and a trailer.
MGM has slowly been releasing Allen's back catalog on Blu-ray, with generally positive results. 'Sleeper' comes from a great-looking source, and the resulting AVC-encoded, 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer is excellent. The source is in great shape, with no damage or noticeable dirt. The transfer is equally strong, with no artifacts. The film's 70s stock is wonderfully preserved, with plenty of grain that comes together to make a pleasing image. The subdued color palette is accurately reproduced, with slightly warm fleshtones. Detail is very good. You can see freckles on Woody Allen's neck and face, and appreciate all the design touches that went into the production. Contrast is good, with clean whites and strong blacks. When Milo and Luna sneak around in lab coats, you can not only appreciate the whiteness of the apparel, but also see small creases in the fabric and plenty in the shadows. For a catalog release, 'Sleeper' looks very strong.
'Sleeper' arrives on Blu-ray with its original monaural soundtrack in a DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 track. For a mono mix, 'Sleeper' sounds very good. While the sound is constrained to a single channel, Allen takes care to fill that channel with great sound. The all-important dialogue comes through cleanly and clearly, without distortion, pops, or other audible issues. The jazz soundtrack (played by Allen and his band), actually sounds quite full, lively, and vibrant. The sound's faux-futuristic sound design sounds delightfully kitsch now. Being mono, the track will ultimately still sound limited, but despite that it comes off strongly.
Woody Allen's 'Sleeper' is the epitome of his "earlier, funnier" films. The movie expertly balances physical comedy, social satire, and film parody to create one of the most gut-busting entries in Allen's career. Keaton and Allen had undeniable chemistry with each other, and despite its age, the satirical aspects are just as sharp today. This Blu-ray has quite good image quality for a catalog release, and the mono soundtrack is surprisingly full. While the disc has no special features (save for a surprisingly good theatrical trailer), the image and sound quality alone make this a worthy upgrade.