by Pauline Kael
Woody Allen appears before us as the battered adolescent, scarred forever, a little too nice and much too threatened to allow himself to be aggressive. He has the city-wise effrontery of a shrimp who began by using language to protect himself and then discovered that language has a life of its own. The running war between the tame and the surreal — between Woody Allen the frightened nice guy trying to keep the peace and Woody Allen the wiseacre whose subversive fantasies keep jumping out of his mouth — has been the source of the comedy in his films. Messy, tasteless, and crazily uneven (as the best talking comedies have often been), the last two pictures he directed — Bananas and Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex — had wild highs that suggested an erratic comic genius. The tension between his insecurity and his wit makes us empathize with him; we, too, are scared to show how smart we feel. And he has found a nonaggressive way of dealing with urban pressures. He stays nice; he’s not insulting, like most New York comedians, and he delivers his zingers without turning into a cynic. We enjoy his show of defenselessness, and even the I-don’t-mean-any-harm ploy, because we see the essential sanity in him. We respect that sanity — it’s the base from which he takes flight. At his top, in parts of Bananas and Sex, the inexplicably funny took over; it might be grotesque, it almost always had the flippant, corny bawdiness of a frustrated sophomore running amok, but it seemed to burst out — as the most inspired comedy does — as if we had all been repressing it. We laughed as if he had let out what we couldn’t hold in any longer.
The surreal is itself tamed in Woody Allen’s Sleeper, the most stable and most sustained of his films. (It also has the best title.) Easily the slapstick comedy of the year — there hasn’t been any other — Sleeper holds together, as his sharpest earlier films failed to do; it doesn’t sputter and blow fuses, like Bananas and Sex. It’s charming — a very even work, with almost no thudding bad lines and with no low stretches. I can’t think of anything much the matter with it; it’s a small classic. But it doesn’t have the loose, manic highs of those other films. You come out smiling and perfectly happy, but not driven crazy, not really turned on, the way his messier movies and some musicals (Singin’ in the Rain, Cabaret) and some comic movies (M*A*S*H, The Long Goodbye) and parts of Paul Mazursky’s movies can turn one on. I had a wonderful time at Sleeper, and I laughed all the way through, but it wasn’t exhilarating. Allen’s new sense of control over the medium and over his own material seems to level out the abrasive energy. You can be with it all the way, and yet it doesn’t impose itself on your imagination — it dissolves when it’s finished. If it sounds like a contradiction to say that Sleeper is a small classic and yet not exhilarating — well, I can’t completely explain that. Comedy is impossibly mysterious; this is a beautiful little piece of work — it shows a development of skills in our finest comedy-maker — and yet it’s mild, and doesn’t quite take off.
Woody Allen plays a Rip Van Winkle who wakes up in 2173 — and that’s all I’m going to say about the story, because I don’t want to squeeze the freshness out of the jokes. His girl is Diane Keaton (who was practically the only good thing in Play It Again, Sam), and she has a plucky, almost Jean Arthur quality. She’s very appealing, and in Sleeper you want to like her; I always felt right on the verge of responding to her (as a broad-faced, Slavic-looking poet of the future), but she isn’t quite funny enough. She has good bits (like her Brando parody), but her timing is indefinite, and so is the character she plays. She’s really just there to be Woody’s girl, and there’s nobody else — other than Allen himself— you remember from the movie. Sleeper could really use a cast. In a Preston Sturges comedy, the various characters’ madnesses and obsessions bounced off each other and got all scrambled up; Chaplin and Keaton had their big fellows to contend with; the Marx Brothers had each other, plus Margaret Dumont and Walter Woolf King and Sig Rumann and those blondes wriggling in satin. But Woody Allen has no set characters to respond to. He needs a great stock company, like Carol Burnett’s (Who wants to be a crazy alone? That leads to melancholy), but so far in his movies he’s the only character, because his conception of himself keeps him alone.
The Woody Allen character suffers, in all his films, from sex in the head which he figures his body can’t get for him. It’s the comedy of sexual inadequacy; what makes it hip rather than masochistic and awful is that he thinks women want the media macho ideal, and we in the audience are cued to suspect, as he secretly does, that that’s the real inadequacy (social even more than sexual). Woody Allen is a closet case of potency; he knows he’s potent, but he’s afraid to tell the world — and adolescents and post-adolescents can certainly identify with that. His shrimp-hero’s worst fear may be that he would be attractive only to women who feel sorry for him (or want to dominate him). The latter is parenthetical because Allen hasn’t explored that possibility; the thought of him with, say, Anne Bancroft suggests the sort of gambit he hasn’t tried. When we see his films, all our emotions attach to him; his fear and his frailty are what everything revolves around. No one else in his pictures has a vivid presence, or any particular quality except being a threat to him, and even that quality isn’t really characterized. Maybe the reason he doesn’t invest others with comic character (or even villainous character) is that he’s so hung up that he has no interest in other people’s hangups; that could be why his stories never really build to the big climactic finish one expects from a comedy. His plots don’t tie a gigantic knot and then explode it, because the other characters aren’t strong enough to carry the threads. The end of Sleeper is just a mild cutoff point — not bad but unexciting. The movie has a more conventional slapstick-comedy structure than Bananas, and slapstick isn’t something you can do with a pickup cast. The comedy isn’t forced, it looks relaxed and easy, but the routines don’t gather momentum — they slide off somewhere. Woody Allen loses his supporting players along the way, and one hardly notices. It’s likely that he sees his function as being all of us, and since he’s all of us, nobody else can be anything.
But, being all of us, he can get too evenly balanced, he can lose his edge. Nobody else could have made Bananas or parts of Sex, but others could conceivably make a movie like Sleeper, just as others are beginning to write in the Woody Allen manner — and one of the most gifted of them, Marshall Brickman, is co-author of the Sleeper script. The humor here doesn’t tap the mother lode; it’s strip-mining. The movie is in the Woody Allen style, but it doesn’t have the disruptive inspiration that is the unbalanced soul of Woody Allen. In interviews, Allen has often been quoted as saying that he wants to stay rough in his movie technique; I used to enjoy reading those quotes, because I thought he was right, and in Bananas his instinct to let the jokes run shapelessly loose instead of trimming them and making them tidy paid off. The effect was berserk, in an original way. But he tailored his play Play It Again, Sam in the smooth George S. Kaufman-Broadway style, and the movie version, which Herbert Ross directed even more smoothly (I hated it), turned out to be Woody Allen’s biggest box-office success up to that time, and made him a mass-audience star. How could a man who really trusted the free and messy take up the clarinet, an instrument that appeals to controlled, precise people? You can’t really goof around with a clarinet. (The group he plays with, the New Orleans Funeral and Ragtime Orchestra, can be heard on the Sleeper track, along with the Preservation Hall Jazz. Band.) I think he knows that the free and messy is the right, great direction for his comedy, but he’s very well organized, and, like most comedians, he really trusts success. He trusts laughs, and how can a comedian tell when they’re not earned? He’s a romantic comedian — he goes on believing in love and the simple, good things in life. He’s also a very practical-man comedian — he’s the harried, bespectacled nice guy who just wants to stay nice and be a success and get the girl. In terms of his aspirations, he’s rather like Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel — the unpretentious, hopeful joiner of the bourgeoisie — as a jester. In American terms, he’s Harold Lloyd with Groucho’s tongue.
To have found a clean visual style for a modern slapstick comedy in color is a major victory; Woody Allen learns with the speed of a wizard. Sleeper has a real look to it, and simple, elegant design. (The robot servants of the future, in their tuxedos, might be windup dandies by Elie Nadelman.) Physically, Woody Allen is much more graceful in Sleeper, he’s turning into that rarity, a verbal comedian who also knows how to use his body. And his acting has developed; he can register more emotions now, and his new silly beatific look — the look of a foolish sage — goes with the wonderful infantile jokes that don’t make sense. But one might say that Sleeper is a sober comedy; it doesn’t unhinge us, we never feel that our reason is being shredded. It has a businesslike, nine-to-five look about it, and a faint nine-to-five lethargy. For a comedian, the price of stability may be the loss of inspiration. (Our most inspired comedian, Jonathan Winters, has never found his forms. But then he doesn’t have that base of sanity, either.) What’s missing is the wild man’s indifference to everything but the joke. In Woody Allen’s case, this out-of-control edge went way past Groucho’s effrontery and W. C. Fields’ malice into a metaphysical outrageousness, but the impulse was similar: finally, the pleasure in the joke was all that mattered. That’s what put him among the great ones.
Woody Allen has become our folk hero because we felt that if we stuck with him failure could succeed; this was, in a sense, his pact with us to get our loyalty, and it worked. We don’t want to have to go through failure; we want to watch him go through it — and come out the other side. I always thought the danger for him was that he wanted to be a universal little fellow — a Chaplin — and that he might linger too long on the depressive, misfit side of his character and let the schleppy pathos take over (as he did in Take the Money and Run). And I thought that if he ever convinced us that he was really failing he’d lose us — who wants to watch a wispy schlep? He may not fully know it, but he doesn’t need our sympathy; he’s got much more than that already. What Woody Allen probably doesn’t realize is that when he uses his wit he becomes our D’Artagnan. He isn’t a little fellow for college students; he’s a hero. They want to be funny, like him.
What I had underestimated was another danger. Woody Allen tips the scales toward winning in Sleeper, all right, but he overvalues normality; the battered adolescent still thinks that that’s the secret of happiness. He hasn’t come to terms with what his wit is telling him. He’s dumped Chaplin (blessings) and devised a Buster Keaton-style story, but Keaton’s refined physical movements were a clown’s poetry, while when Allen does physical comedy — even when he’s good at it — he’s a very ordinary person. His gift is upstairs. It’s really lucky that he cares about himself as much as he does, or he might get so balanced out that his jokes would become monotonous, like those of his imitators. If only he can begin to take control for granted, now that he’s improving as a physical comedian and gaining infinitely greater skill as a director. Surreal comedy is chaos; to be really funny, you have to be willing to let your unconscious take over. That’s what doesn’t happen in Sleeper.
New Yorker, December 31, 1973