DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog: Sleepers

Saturday 6 August 2011


Sleepers (1996) dir. Barry Levinson
Starring: Jason Patric, Brad Pitt, Kevin Bacon, Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman


By Alan Bacchus

Back in 1996, in the weeks prior to the film’s fall theatrical release the excitement was palpable. Going by the all star cast, the fantastic director and the promise of a crime saga in the tradition of Once Upon a Time in America, or Goodfellas, this film had the makings of a classic. Sadly the film failed to live up these expectations, resulting an epic too self-conscious of its intended legacy with these other films, in effect dying under it’s own sword.

Now 15 years later (has it been THAT long?) the new Blu-Ray release of Barry Levinson’s Sleepers is as sparse and no frills as can be. Special features include only one trailer, the cover art features the theatrical photo, wasting no time or money on expensive designs, and even the menu screen is a plain still image, bare bones work, the absolute minimum to get this onto the shelves.

The original source material comes from Lorenzo Carcaterra’s book of the same name an autobiographical tale of he and three other Hell’s Kitchen boys who in the 60's go to juvie prison after an innocent prank goes wrong. Barry Levinson seemed the right choice of director. His ensemble work with new actors in Diner launched his career. His nostaglic work in Avalon seemed the right fit for Carcaterra’s recollections of youth in New York.

Yet, Levinson’s lazy screenplay and direction is shamelessly on-the-nose. At every turn the film’s themes and metaphors are thrown in our faces. Bruno Kirby’s character for instance seems to be acting in a different movie, through Carcaterra’s (Patric) father we’re supposed to see the domestic abuse pervasive in the community, but at the same time the lessons of hard work and American dream. Instead Kirby’s stories of revenge pride and revenge of the neighbourhood gangster King Benny telegraph the entire path of this film. Same with the prison metaphors of The Count of Monte Cristo which Carcaterra reads with in prison.

The first half of the picture featuring the four main characters as ikmpressionable young kids learning life on the street seem to recreate the opening acts of Goodfellas and Once Upon a Time in America. Levinson showers us to dreamy nostalgia and earnestness. And sadly, the kids are only just passable. The adult versions of these kids are even less interesting. Brad Pitt looks handsome as an older Brad Renfro, and Jason Patric is mostly dull as the brooding alter ego of Joseph Perrino. The best of bunch are then newbies Ron Eldard and Billy Crudup who have grown up to be the neighbourhood gangsters. Anchoring both eras of the picture is Kevin Bacon as the dittling pedophile in the Juvenile prison who is effectively terrifying.

What fails the picture though are the enormous plot holes in the present – that is, the court case wherein Brad Pitt’s character choosing to represent the prosecution despite being childhood friends of the accused. We’re told that no one would make the connection since ‘juvenile records’ are destroyed after the children leave, but after painting the picture of Hell Kitchen as a place where everyone know each other, this notion just doesn’t tread water.

With this domino falling so does the rest of the film. The only bright spot is watching Robert De Niro, effective as the streetwise priest and Dustin Hoffman, as the drunken defence lawyer, sharing the same space and acting together. Wait for Barry Levinson’s Wag the Dog a year later to see these guys in action in a far superior film.

Sleepers is available on Blu-Ray from Warner Home Entertainment

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