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Asleep at the Reel Review: 'Sleepers' makes nothing out of something. It's got stars, but seediness stands in for storytelling. Hey, Levinson, wake up and smell the popcorn.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

"Sleepers" is a bad idea whose movie has come.

Imagine "The Whiffenpoof Song" as played by the London Symphony Orchestra, and you have a sense of the gargantuan " inflation of the wispy and banal that is at play in the production of Lorenzo Carcaterra's maybe-true, maybe-not book. There's too much and not enough at the same time: too much plot, not enough drama, too much explaining, not enough happening.

At heart, this is a seedy little enterprise that exploits molestation as a pretext for the crassest commercial thrills, while itself proving morally evasive at the center. Whenever its pace lags, it serves up some arty re-creations of sexual savagery directed at kids to heat things up again. Something about it feels unclean.

Four youths, presented as "lovable" and "innocent" in their wild Hell's Kitchen days, pull off an amusing little prank which almost kills a man and ruins another's livelihood, a moral dilemma the movie never faces as it so busily represents them as victims. As a consequence -- again, the movie presents this as an injustice -- they are sent to a reform school. What no judge can know is that the sentence is fated to be less than just and more than cruel and unusual: The school is run by a claque of guards who use their power to beat and rape their charges, and they take a special delight in tormenting the Hell's Kitchen quartet.

Fifteen years later two of the boys have grown up to be low-end hired killers, though the film represents this profession as a lifestyle choice, devoid of moral consequence. In any event, they run into the head guard in a midtown pub and less than brilliantly blow him away in plain sight of four witnesses. It then turns out that the prosecutor in the case is the third boy, who manipulates mightily to flip the trial with the assistance of the fourth boy, a news clerk and the story's narrator. This feeble invention is represented as a conspiracy at least as complex as the #i screwiest theory of the Kennedy assassination, but you keep asking: Since the main conspirator is the prosecutor trying to lose his own case how hard can it be?

As a story, it's just not very well told. Writer-director Barry Levinson, it pains me to say of a man whose work I have admired extravagantly, has had better days than the one on which he acquired "Sleepers." He's not a naturally fluent storyteller: He's more of a miniaturist, who can evoke moments and characters in vivid reality but has no particular gift for the larger forms of narrative. In this one, he's at sea from the beginning.

To make things worse, he doesn't really have much of a feel for the gritty components: New York street life, which he sentimentalizes like an Iowa farm boyhood, urban Catholicism, child molestation, ugly violence at the hands of authority. The last two were far more powerfully depicted in the brilliant Canadian film "The Boys of St. Vincent," which remains the sole masterpiece on the subject and a movie whose sense of tragedy makes "Sleepers" seem positively indecent.

Since the central unit in the film is a passionately bonded group of male friends, Levinson may have seen it as "Diner" with hot commercial elements, but the story isn't well-organized, it always seems to be hurrying to catch up with itself, and far too much is told rather than shown: Has Levinson forgotten Henry James' dictum that the three rules of storytelling are dramatize, dramatize and dramatize?

In fact, "Sleepers" feels more like a casting coup than an actual story, what with big face guys Brad Pitt, Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman, Kevin Bacon and Jason Patric all up there clamoring to be noticed at the same time. (The Score: Old guys 2, Young guys 0.)

But even the acting has its problems. Pitt, for example, whose name will draw the millions, is in every scene in the last half, but he's not in the movie in the fundamental sense. Instead, in the movie equivalent of the passive voice in fiction, Jason Patric laboriously explains him to us, and we see Pitt like a puppet, but we never, somehow, feel him as a character. As the prosecuting attorney who is pulling the strings, he has no presence or dynamism; he doesn't seem to be driving the plot so much as reading it the night before on his script pages.

Almost nothing except the first-class cinematography and the brilliant evocation of Hell's Kitchen in the '60s works: There are plot holes wide enough for the U.S.S. Iowa, the four boys are difficult to tell apart, the two killers (Billy Crudup and Ron Eldard) are passive players, too much of the film is given over to watching elaborate but unnecessary plots by minor characters against even more minor characters, and one huge chunk of courtroom histrionics is clearly irrelevant to the case even as the prosecutor has structured it.

The overwhelming sense of the film is waste: It throws people away callously. Its moral center is Robert De Niro, a surprisingly callow Catholic priest, who believes in "his boys" above everything. (Friendship untainted by judgment is the movie's central value; it's for people who think that "Friends" is great art.) But he's got to decide whether or not to perjure himself -- a mortal sin, no? And after finally coming to a decision, he is just abandoned by the movie. There's no money shot of his reconciliation with himself or with his boys. And the trick by which he brings this trick off is so lame it belongs on one of Letterman's "Whatta twist!" nights.

Hoffman is another case. He's the most appealing character in the film, a seedy, used-up defense lawyer who at least knows the truth about himself; you want to like him; he makes you like him; but the movie gives you no reason to even care about him. Worse, since the case is being stage-managed by others, his redemption through the trial has no meaning.

Last, and also least, the film is pretty much dumped on the shoulders of wan little Jason Patric, long heralded as a great up-and-comer. He struggles mightily to carry the load but is ultimately squashed; the more the camera peers at his handsome face, the less it sees. His eyes are empty, his voice hollow; he narrates in a flaccid, self-pitying voice, but by the end, the only one to pity is the audience.

B.L., phone home! Or better yet, come home.

'Sleepers'

Starring: Brad Pitt, Dustin Hoffman, Robert DeNiro and Jason Patric

Directed by: Barry Levinson

Released by: Warner Bros.

Rated: R (extreme violence)

Sun score: **

Pub Date: 10/18/96

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