Writer/director Woody Allen’s Sleeper stands on the shoulders of Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, and Groucho Marx, with a touch of 2001: A Space Odyssey for good measure. Its best moments come when Allen leans hard into that silent film legacy, and for most of the film, I found myself willing Allen to just stop talking. That’s not a great sign for a filmmaker as wordy as Allen.
The sight gags really work, though. From classic physical comedy, like when Miles (Allen) careens back and forth atop a ladder, to background gags like the expanding, sentient pudding, Allen pays considerable homage to vaudeville comedians and silent film actors. He clearly knows his history and can execute that style well.
The dialogue, though, is utterly cringe worthy. Miles comes across as predatory, sex-driven doofus, and Luna (Diane Keaton) ranks among the least compelling female leads in comedy. They have no chemistry. Miles’s robotic, relentless pursuit of tail seems even worse in light of the allegations against Allen.
The plot devolves into utter nonsense, with the police state being so poorly sketched out that I couldn’t tell who was part of the resistance and who was not. In the mid-1970s, Sleeper could very well have landed solid punches against fascism and totalitarianism, but Allen seems to be holding back in favor of sci-fi knockoffs.
Allen and Keaton will both come into their own with later entries into the list, but I was surprised by how weak Sleeper is as a film. The elements of a “Woody Allen film” are there: jazz music, pre-film credits, neurotic characters, off-color humor that goes unremarked. But Allen hasn’t quite figured out how to win over an audience with a complete, nuanced story, and Sleeper suffers for it.