Sleepers

Juvenile DelinquencyEntertainmentMoviesBarry LevinsonSocial IssuesCrime, Law and JusticeJason Patric

Friday October 18, 1996

     From day one everything about "Sleepers" has been so overblown and exaggerated that it's not a shock to find the film has turned out that very way.
     The fuss started when "Sleepers" was published as a book. Despite a lack of hard evidence, author Lorenzo Carcaterra insisted that his contrived tale of horrors inflicted on four teenage boys and the outlandish revenge they concocted as adults was a true story. The "is it or isn't it" controversy quickly pushed the book onto bestseller lists, which probably was the idea all along.
     Just as inevitably, the commotion attracted the notice of Hollywood, and Barry Levinson eventually got the assignment to write the screenplay and direct a cast that came to include Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman, Kevin Bacon, Jason Patric and Brad Pitt.
     Levinson's first film also involved a group of close male friends, but "Sleepers" is closer to De Sade than "Diner" in feeling. Starting with a self-important first sentence ("This is a true story about friendship that runs deeper than blood"), the film's tone works overtime at mythologizing tawdry incidents into some ultimate epic about the lost innocence of youth. Gilded trash is more like it.
     There's a reason for this thirsting for Olympus. At least a third of "Sleepers' " 2 hours and 21 minutes focuses on scenes of repeated sexual abuse and rape of teenage boys. Though Levinson and cinematographer Michael Ballhaus bring considerable filmmaking skill to these depictions, as atrocity piles on atrocity most audiences will begin to wonder how sadism has come to equal entertainment. By pumping up the poetry and importance of the surrounding story, "Sleepers" is desperately trying to justify the torture it inflicts on viewers.
     Discomfort of a different kind is in store for fans of Pitt, Patric and Hoffman, for they don't appear until the film's second hour. "Sleepers" opens in the summer of 1966, when its four protagonists are young teenage boys living in the Hell's Kitchen neighborhood of Manhattan, described with typical artificiality in the film's voice-over as "a place of innocence ruled by corruption."
     The voice belongs to the adult Lorenzo (Patric), known as Shakes because of his interest in literature. His words guide us through the neighborhood saints and sinners of his childhood, introducing us to hard but fair Father Bobby (De Niro), "a friend who just happened to be a priest," and the local crime boss, King Benny (a charming performance by veteran Italian actor Vittorio Gassman). And of course we meet the young Shakes and his three pals, friends like there have never been friends since the Earth began.
     Though King Benny tells the boys they're not as tough as they think ("Somebody is going to eat you up like appetizers and forget you by dessert"), they don't listen until it's too late and they've committed the out-of-control prank that leads to an enforced stay in the Wilkinson Home for Boys, a.k.a. Sadism Central. There they fall under the sway of a sneeringly evil guard named Sean Nokes (Bacon) and have the nasty experiences that leave them, the voice-over weeps, "each in his own cell, each in his own pain."
     Once the four are released, "Sleepers" flashes forward to 1981, when two of the guys have become murderous thugs, a third an assistant district attorney (Pitt) and Shakes a newspaper reporter. Suddenly a chance for revenge against Nokes and the system comes up, a screwy scheme that involves Father Bobby, King Benny, a run-down lawyer named Danny Snyder (Hoffman), a local girl who knew them when (Minnie Driver), an irrepressible local grocery store owner (a scene-stealing Frank Medrano) and too many implausible coincidences to list.
     Because it's more low key and features effective acting and less mythologizing, the second half of "Sleepers" is easier to take than what's come before. But, complicated though it is, the revenge plot takes place mostly in a courtroom and does not make for terribly compelling viewing, which may be why the film keeps flashing back to those horrific scenes in the Wilkinson Home.
     In craft terms alone, "Sleepers" is considerably better than average filmmaking, but it's difficult to take this film as seriously as it takes itself. "Sleepers" wants us to believe it's a classy morality play, but Shakes provides a better epitaph. "You know," he says, "everything in this neighborhood is a shakedown or a scam." Present company not excluded.


Sleepers, 1996. R, for language, graphic violence and two scenes of strong sexual content. A Propaganda Films/Baltimore Pictures production, in association with PolyGram Filmed Entertainment, released by Warner Bros. Director Barry Levinson. Producer Barry Levinson, Steve Golin. Executive producer Peter Giuliano. Screenplay Barry Levinson, based on the book by Lorenzo Carcaterra. Cinematographer Michael Ballhaus. Editor Stu Linder. Costumes Gloria Gresham. Music John Williams. Production design Kristi Zea. Art director Timothy Galvin. Set decorator Beth A. Rubino. Running time: 2 hours, 21 minutes. Kevin Bacon as Nokes. Robert De Niro as Father Bobby. Dustin Hoffman as Danny Snyder. Bruno Kirby as Shakes' father. Jason Patric as Shakes. Brad Pitt as Michael. Brad Renfro as young Michael. Minnie Driver as Carol.

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