1973 WAS A SINGULARLY LAUGHLESS movie year, with occasional chuckles, a snicker now and then, the knowing smile for satire or the pleased grin for sheer niceness—but the bellylaughs and guffaws were so few and far between that up to now they were beyond recall. Now, however, we’ve seen Woody Allen’s Sleeper—and we’re giggling at the retrospect.
Humor, of course, is as personal as sex: among a critic’s major sins, we’ve learned, is that of the superlative. Label a movie “hilarious” or “supererotic” and you create an audience, consciously or not, looking at the screen with a challenge, daring the filmmaker to do the ultimate in risibility raising or libido levitation. Well, sin though it be we can but label Sleeper hilarious—adding quickly that only those who find some amusement in Chaplin, Laurel & Hardy, W. C. Fields, the Marx Bros. and Woody Allen will find it so. Allen devotees will find this fourth of the films he has directed his best to date as filmmaker as well as his best work as actor and as writer, with Marshall Brickman, an outstanding humorist in his own right and writing, as co-author of the screenplay.
Allen has taken a major step in his own characterization, making the transition from nebbish to nice guy, the change reflected perhaps in his taking the role-name of Miles Monroe. In Sleeper Miles is our delegate to the future: proprietor of the Happy Carrot Health Food Store on Bleecker Street and a clarinetist by avocation, he goes into the hospital for an ulcer operation and gets “a cosmic screwing.” He’s discovered 200 years later, wrapped in aluminum foil and frozen stiff in a capsule in the automated super-futuristic regimented world of 2173. The world as he knew it, Miles is told, was destroyed “over 100 years ago when a man named Albert Shanker got hold of a nuclear warhead.” The scientists who defrost him want him as a source of information on the various artifacts of a past civilization—they’re part of a still unbrainwashed underground movement that is just discovering individualism and becoming interested in Marxism—but in minutes the secret police are on the trail of the “alien” in their midst and the chase is on.
What follows doesn’t for a change, defy description any more than the plot of A Night at the Opera or Horsefeathers would—but the juice lies in the moments, in the sight gags and throwaway lines and sparkling scattering of satiric wit both in the background and in closeup, as our hero makes his hair-breadth escapes, meets, loses and gets girl and stabs at the present and the future with the wonderfully lunatic sanity that is the hallmark of the true humorist.
As brilliant as the script and performance is the design of the film, with art direction by Dale Hennesy (of Fantastic Voyage acclaim) who used actual outdoor locations for the astounding exteriors, and studio sets for the clever commentary of the interiors, while special effects to make it all work were created by A. D. Flowers (of The Poseidon Adventure). And for the final topping, or wrap-up, however your ear works, there’s a score by Allen and The Preservation Hall Jazz Band of New Orleans and his own group, The New Orleans Funeral and Marching Orchestra. Small doubt that with Sleeper Woody Allen comes into his own as a filmmaker. But more important from our standpoint, perhaps, is that he has provided us with the best comedy in years and enabled us to deem it hilarious without a quibble or a hesitation—just with bellylaughs and guffaws.
THERE’S PLEASURE OF ANOTHER SORT in French filmmaker Claude Lelouch’s Happy New Year, a beautifully romantic near-nostalgic caper tale with a lovely bow in the direction of the liberated woman. Lelouch, now 36, hit the big time back in 1966 with A Man and a Woman, that very classy women’s-mag soaper, and after two misses ( Live for Life and Life, Love, Death in ‘67 and ‘69) began to hit at the head as well as the heart with, in successive years, Love is a Funny Thing, The Crook and (time out for the Smic, Smac, Smoc disaster) Money, Money, Money, the last released early 1973. With his new film, he spans the years, opening his film, in fact, with A Man and a Woman being shown as a 1973 holiday treat for prison inmates, three of whom are