Sleepers

on October 18, 1996 by Kim Williamson
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   So strong is "Sleepers'" professional artistry it virtually shouts from every scene of this Barry Levinson film, which at almost 2 1/2 hours is easily a half hour too long; to a man, the high profile cast turn in performances that are so resolutely perfect nearly all the juice is squeezed from them; and the heavy on voice over film (the first scene with any significant amount of dialogue doesn't occur until about seven minutes in) is based on the emotional bestseller by Lorenzo Carcaterra, with Levinson's screenplay so obviously (and understandably) in love with the author's evocative language the movie he's made almost reads more than looks.
   With virtually every positive element of this Baltimore Pictures/Propaganda production the story of four Hell's Kitchen boys who are sent to reform school where they are tortured and raped by three guards and their henchman, Sean (Kevin Bacon); later, grown into journalist, district attorney and two gangsters, the four friends exact an inventive retribution. One can understand why Levinson, following the creatively challenging but boxoffice misfiring "Toys" and "Jimmy Hollywood" and the successful but thematically bankrupt "Disclosure," and his stellar cast would be attracted to rich fare like "Sleepers." But perhaps not all literary veins, no matter how deep, carry the silver that will work onscreen.
   Certainly, any long movie whose second half first tells moviegoers what is going to happen and then in lockstep fashion shows those very outcomes runs the risk of seeming sleepy. But the crucial error here is the POV: Lorenzo (Joe Perrino as a boy, Jason Patric as an adult) is the center of the story he tells of him and his friends Michael (Brad Renfro and Brad Pitt), John (Geoff Wigdor and Ron Eldard) and Tommy (Jonathan Tucker and Billy Crudup) for no other reason than he's the one who grew up to be a writer. Although neither of the two eventual criminals, John and Tommy, are good candidates, Michael ash) the assistant D.A.who hatches a plan to surreptitiously lose a case in which John and Tommy stand (correctly) accused of murder and at the same time bring the men who were their abusers to justice has the most of the four at risk. Yet what even Michael can lose, his mortal job, pales in comparison to what a supporting character, Father Bobby (Robert De Niro) could lose: his mortal soul, for lying under oath that John and Tommy, two of his former altar boys, had been with him on the night of the murder.
   As "Priest" proved, that kind of conflict will make a movie, with the Catholic's humanity the desire to prevent suffering running aground (or vice versa) on the Catholic's religious faith the understanding that earthly existence is intended to be a veil of tears through which people via suffering gain eternal life. But that's not the story "Sleepers" wants to tell. What it has in place is always intriguingly compassionate, but it never catches fire. Starring Kevin Bacon, Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman, Bruno Kirby, Jason Patric, Brad Pitt, Brad Renfro and Minnie Driver. Directed and written by Barry Levinson. Produced by Steve Golin and Barry Levinson. A Warner Bros. release. Drama. Rated R for language, graphic violence and two scenes of strong sexual content. Running time: 146 min. Opens wide 10/18
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