Lest we forget (but who could?), before there was Woody Allen the major filmmaker lionized in the series of blog posts below, there was, of course, Woody Allen the former stand-up man taking hesitant, awkward steps into a brand new medium. On a visual level, the early stuff isn’t pretty, and the tension between his love for the careful aesthetics of his European idols and his own rumpled comedy find no better expression than the hysterical Bergman parodies/homages in Love and Death. It’s perhaps telling that he hit his stride aesthetically following that film and hasn’t really looked back.
Working in the same budget future-shock vein as Alphaville and Je t’aime, je t’aime (it also makes a nice dystopian double bill with the terrific Children of Men), 1973’s Sleeper was Allen’s most coherent stab at a semblance of three-act narrative to date. “Semblance” is key—weighing in at 84 minutes, the film’s pretty loose and more than a little padded. But even if there may be two or three too many Keystone Kops-esque chase sequences, stretching out into a beginning, middle, and end hasn’t dulled Allen’s satire a whit. Indeed, as in Cuarón’s film (just lighter), Allen uses his future-on-five-dollars-or-less setting as an empty vessel into which he can pour a fair bit of scathing commentary about the mess that is/was the 20th Century. His vision of the future as a collection of bulbous household amenities and shoddily constructed cars isn’t too shabby, either.
Also notable in that it marks the director’s first collaboration with his longtime muse Diane Keaton (looking astonishingly lovely) Sleeper serves as a ready reminder of just how little Allen’s comedy has changed through the years—even as recently as last summer’s Scoop, the director still relies on lodged camera setups that allow him space to rant and worry at length. Conventional wisdom suggests that the late comedies (The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, Small Time Crooks, etc.) don’t hold up nearly as well as his earlier works, but I find it hard to really draw a distinction. All the films seem to hit a fairly consistent groaners-to-laughs ratio, and putting Woody Allen into almost any scenario (private eye, vaudeville magician, time traveler, Russian solider) is about as close as you can get to a sure bet in my book. Perhaps Dave Kehr, writing for the Chicago Reader nails Sleeper (and many of Allen’s comedies) best: “…An ungainly collection of one-liners and misdirected sight gags that hardly qualifies as a ‘movie.’ But as a stand-up routine it’s a scream.”