Where many serious dramatic or horror directors can hit the ground running first time out, comedy directors usually need a few films to find out what works and how well. John Landis is now widely revered as a comedy director but bits of Kentucky Fried Movie and Animal House feel amateurish and slapdash. The same goes for Kevin Smith, although the foul-mouthed adolescence of Clerks is infinitely preferable to the mawkish sentimentality of Jersey Girl.
Sleeper falls into the same grouping. It's a decent, workable effort from Woody Allen which retains some of its charm and much of its humour. It isn't in the same league as Annie Hall, Manhattan or Hannah and her Sisters, and elements of it have become more irritating than funny over time. But it's an interesting venture from a young filmmaker who hadn't quite figured out what shape his career was going to take.
Much like its predecessor, Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask), Sleeper has its roots in the episodic, observational vignettes of Allen's early writing and stand-up. It has a more narrative structure than 'Sex, and its characters are somewhat more developed, but it remains a hotchpotch of many different ideas and literary sources. Like a stand-up routine, these individual ideas or elements are not there to be explored in any kind of depth; they are only included for as long as they are funny, an observation which will prove useful in helping us to assess the film.
Sleeper draws on a wide range of dystopian science fiction, both from page and screen. The central premise of a man waking up after two hundred years is loosely based on H. G. Wells' The Sleeper Wakes, but instead of our protagonist waking up as the richest man in the world (due to compound interest), he is merely confused and out of place. In that respect the film owes an equal debt to the Mark Twain story A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, only with the direction of time travel reversed. There are also thematic references to Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World, the latter especially in the prominent position of drugs and casual sex. And visually the film reflects the sci-fi ventures of Stanley Kubrick, combining the stark white interiors of 2001 with the peculiar fashions of A Clockwork Orange.
In a serious-minded sci-fi film this would be all well and good, but Allen marries it instead to the melodramatic slapstick of Buster Keaton and the tart one-liners of the Marx Brothers. The film is on one level Allen paying homage to his comedy heroes; he gives us the most elaborate and funniest banana skin joke in any film, and performs his own version of the mirror trick from Duck Soup. Both of these scenes are funny in their own small way, but they also hint at the central problem with the film as a whole.
There can be no doubt from watching Sleeper than Allen is an intelligent filmmaker. Most of what made his observational stand-up so enjoyable remains both in the caustic one-liners of Miles Monroe and the fleeting jibes he makes at revered social institutions like the Catholic Church. In one early scene, he is shown a series of photographs and television clips and asked to identify key historical figures. Allen is in his element here, tearing into reputations which took generations to build up with a series of perfectly balanced put-downs, which walk the tightrope between clever and stupid and make it safely to the other side.
Sleeper is a high concept film in nature, since it has one central idea which the rest of the script has to bend over backwards to support. Just as Jaws wouldn't work if you weren't constantly scared, so Sleeper would quickly fall apart if you ever stopped laughing and started to pick this brave new world apart. Generally this doesn't happen, since Allen's verbal comedy nearly always hits the mark, but the film does feel like he has chucked everything and the kitchen sink at the screen to stop you questioning the logic of the world he has created.
The biggest problem with Sleeper is that so many different forms of comedy are being employed, and in such a slapdash, desperate manner, that a lot of the substance and intellect gets buried underneath passing entertainment. In Annie Hall, the long speeches about anti-Semitism or the encounter with Marshal McLuhan are not rushed along in a desperate bid to get to the next joke; Allen, as both a writer and director, takes his time, letting a scene unfold and the comedy to develop at the required pace.
In Sleeper, on the other hand, all of the brilliant gags about religion, revolution and relationships are swept along and quickly forgotten. It's like running around a sweet shop in a desperate bid to sample everything; it's fun, and you have some idea of how it's going to end, but you never get the chance to stop and appreciate each individual moment of craft.
An equally apt comparison, considering the references to Kubrick, would be with Dr. Strangelove, another film which took a deeply serious prospect and succeeded in making it seem ridiculous (Sleeper does actually reference Strangelove -- notice that 'the leader' is in a wheelchair and has a similar haircut). Dr. Strangelove works so well, on one level, because it identifies exactly what kind of comedy it wants to be very early on: the script is rooted in absurdist humour and supported by Kubrick's focus on the Freudian undertones of power. Sleeper doesn't have that level of consistency, and in its weaker moments towards the end it does feel like it is clutching at straws.
On top of the general feeling of fleetingness and inconsistency, parts of Sleeper are just really, really annoying. The slapstick scenes are scored with Allen playing clarinet with his ragtime band. On paper this sound fine, since silent comedy has always been backed by music and the clarinet was used in 'Dance of the Cuckoos', the famous Laurel and Hardy theme. But in the film itself it's really grating, being mixed far too loud and undermining some of the best visual jokes in the process. Plus, if you can get beyond the neuroticism of Allen's character (i.e. you realise that he's not just playing himself), you still have to deal with Diane Keaton; for a lot of the film her character is greatly unlikeable, and no matter how much irony there is on screen we struggle to care about her for some time.
Sleeper is a comedy which is equal parts grating and grin-inducing. So much of what Allen does here is annoying, or repetitive, or too much of a diversion from the central concept. But the film never really stops being funny, and thus it continues to work as a comedy. Whether it's the running joke about the exploding guns or the well-crafted put-downs, you'll find a certain aspect of Sleeper that will tickle your funny bone. It isn't as well-crafted as Dr. Strangelove, nor do its jokes carry the story as well as in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. But it still works well both as a slice of clownish escapism and as a reminder of the greatness which has long since diminished.