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As always, Cranky makes no comparisons to a film's source material, in this case the book by Lorenzo Carcaterra.
Sometimes having a A-list cast and director is not enough when the subject matter is so unpleasant that even a revenge motif is can't save it. That being said, the film students out there will have a wonderful time debating the moral themes found in Sleepers.
But not Cranky. Sleepers is the story of four impoverished boys, growing up in the Hells Kitchen, New York City in the 1960s. Hells Kitchen was an area where parents were always fighting, the Church held everything together, and the inhabitants looked after each other.
Lorenzo (Joe Perrino and Jason Patric), Michael (Brad Renfro and Brad Pitt), John (Geoff Wigdor and Ron Eldard) and Tommy (Jonathan Tucker and Billy Crudup) are the pals at the center of the story. Father Bobby (Robert De Niro) was the father figure who watched over them. As kids will do, they played pranks on the immigrant outsiders who worked in the neighborhood.
It was a prank they had pulled before, stealing hot dogs from a local vendor, but in this instance it goes horribly wrong and a man is nearly killed. The quartet are sentenced to a juvenile detention hall where, under the guiding eye of a guard called Nokes (Kevin Bacon), they are raped, sodomized, tortured, starved, and beaten. Again and again.
As tastefully done as it is, it is a horrible, horrifying story. Lorenzo and Michael manage to shake off the past, and grow into a newspaper reporter and an Assistant D.A. respectively. John and Tommy become thugs and hitmen for the local gang, the Westies. When they stumble upon a chance for revenge, they take it. The four boyhood pals come together in a courtroom, on both sides of the law. At the defense table is Danny Snyder (Dustin Hoffman), an alcoholic, drug abusing attorney.
Hoffman's performance is the skylight that broke through the unpleasantness of the bulk of the movie. The laughter that broke from the audience was explosive, and more of relief from the oppressiveness of the tale being told.
At the root, the problem with Sleepers is that, for as much time as they get on screen, we don't get a feeling that the boys *are* truly bonded as pals. Director Barry Levinson, in past films such as Diner and Avalon, knows how to show this on screen. But here he fails. All the good acting in the world -- and have no doubt about it, the performances by Hoffman, Bacon and De Niro are first rate -- can't help if the kidlet actors are mere punching bags and not "living" creations on the big screen. Minnie Driver plays Carol who as a kid character is given so little weight that her reappearance and subsequent emotional torment as an adult just doesn't work.
If you make it to the end, there is some kind of exuberant flashback scene which bears no relationship to anything you will have seen in the previous two hours and thirty minutes of movie. At this point, it will have helped to have read the book.
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Eight Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price for Sleepers, he would have paid . . .
For the performances by Bacon and Hoffman. Buy the book instead.
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