Fiction, and cinema particularly, has propounded so many future dystopias that naming examples is mostly redundant –insert your own here instead. None of them are very funny –except for Sleeper. (Spaceballs is funny, but not dystopian.) If you never thought police states, depersonalised mechanised-sex, and robots were the stuff of joyous slapstick, try watching this.
Sleeper (1973) is one of the prime examples of ‘early, funny’ Woody Allen, at the stage in his career when he was more interested in being Buster Keaton than Ingmar Bergman. While he never abandoned his love for the former (1985’s Purple Rose of Cairo borrows its main conceit from 1924’s Sherlock Jr.), later films would be more tempered, usually by pronounced bouts of existential neuroses.
Here he plays Miles Monroe, a jazz musician and health store owner cryogenically frozen in 1973 against his will during a routine dental procedure, and thawed out two-hundred years in the future where he has to evade the agents of a totalitarian government who accuse him of being a spy.
The plot is less the point than it is the catalyst for a series of brilliant, Marx Bros.-inspired gags. Diane Keaton is along for the ride as Luna, a complacent bourgeoisie of the future, content with facile gratifications such as The Orgasmatron until Miles’ pursuers try to kill her and she turns to anarchy under his influence.
Together they must murder the President’s nose before it is used for purposes of cloning.
Keaton remains the best of Allen’s muses. While Mia Farrow was suited to the roles he gave her in the ‘80’s and early 90’s, she was never as comically adroit, because as an actress she takes herself too seriously, and the psychopathy of her real life is too unconcealed. Whereas, Keaton playing it straight or playing it for laughs always made a perfect foil due to her willingness to be silly, and because her tenderness as a love interest feels less contrived.
Since Sleeper is both silly and (like most Woody Allen films, and like most screwball comedies) love interested, Keaton is of course ideally cast. That Allen –in any other film but his own- would be completely miscast as a love interest or a hero is a long running joke that can grate on some when he does dramas; but here, as in his early films, it is part of the fun: he isn’t asking you to believe the conceit, he wants you to laugh at its ridiculousness.
That said same ridiculousness includes inventive future props, like The Orb (a drug substitute, like a bong, but really just an orb) and the aforementioned Orgasmatron (a self-explanatory machine, based on William Reich’s Orgone Accumulator), is but a bonus, and that those things play equally as pastiches on ‘60’s/‘70’s free love and drug culture as they do absurd projections of a dystopic would-be world is part of Sleeper’s brilliance: the vapidity of LA middle-class types would have been satire enough on its own, but it’s a lot funnier with bespectacled robots and hydro-flight suits.
That the film is as fast paced and giddy as it is makes the ending punchline –a deft statement of pseudo-nihilism- all the more misanthropic. Asked by Luna what he believes in, Miles/Allen dismisses everything –God, love, political systems, science- except “Sex and death — two things that come once in a lifetime — but at least after death you’re not nauseous.” A declaration of intent, given his filmography, if ever there was one; but one you probably shouldn’t believe given the romanticism that belies most of it, including this one.
Fittingly, Love and Death came next. Pun intended. And you should watch that one too.