“Pass the celery” — on its face, an innocuous request; in the context of Woody Allen’s 1973 sci-fi farce Sleeper, screening through Sunday at The Belcourt, the single funniest throwaway line I’ve ever heard in a movie. Allen spent much of the first decade of his career paying homage to other filmmakers — Antonioni (Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex …), Bergman (Interiors), Fellini (Stardust Memories), Renoir (and funny Bergman) in A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy — as he developed the voice and milieu that arrived in Annie Hall. This is his tip of the hat to Buster Keaton, and the Allen who does rubber-limbed slapstick here is all but unrecognizable as the sober auteur of Manhattan and Crimes and Misdemeanors.
Allen is health-food store owner Miles Monroe, cryogenically frozen and awakened in 2173 to a world of bitter class division, political unrest and goofy fashions — basically, to 1973. (For that last item, thank the costume designer, one Joel Schumacher.) On the lam from fascist technocrats, he meets up with bourgeois ditz Diane Keaton, falls in with robots and revolutionaries, plays a dithery Blanche DuBois to Keaton’s brutish Stanley Kowalski — a warm-up for Blue Jasmine? — and fights a very large, very menacing … pudding.
This is the movie where Allen most successfully translates his absurdist verbal comedy into visual terms; put another way, this is the first time in his movies that a punchline such as a giant banana is funnier to see than to read about. With the Preservation Hall Jazz Band blowing sweet, merry Dixieland on the soundtrack to set the mood, it’s a movie that can leave you laughing helplessly — never more so than when the director-star puts a 22nd century spin on that vaudeville oldie-but-goodie, the slippery banana peel.