Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan star in Nora Ephron’s wonderfully romantic comedy about two people drawn together by destiny.
Tom Hanks stars as Sam Baldwin, a widowed father who, thanks to the wiles of his worried son, becomes a reluctant guest on a radio call-in show. He’s an instant hit with thousands of female listeners, who deluge his Seattle home with letters o comfort. Meanwhile, inspired in equal parts by Sam’s story and by classic Hollywood romance, writer Annie Reed (Meg Ryan) becomes convinced that it’s her destiny to meet Sam. There are just two problems: Annie’s engaged to someone else, and Sam doesn’t know -yet- that they’re made for each other. Co-starring Rosie O’Donnell, Rita Wilson and Rob Reiner.
eyelights: its main cast. its dialogues. its balance of drama and comedy.
eyesores: its obvious formula.
“You don’t want to be in love. You want to be in love in a movie.”
1994’s Nora Ephron’s romantic comedy ‘Sleepless in Seattle’ is one of the most memorable entries in the genre – and certainly the most popular one of the nineties. Even I’m a fan, and I can’t say this of all romantic comedies. However, every time I think about it, I play it down, thinking it’s merely “so-so” when it’s in fact a very winning and enchanting fantasy.
I think part of the problem is that it came only a few years after the release of my all-time favourite, the game-changing ‘When Harry Met Sally‘ – which, coincidentally enough, was also written by Nora Ephron (but was directed by Rob Reiner, who has a hilarious cameo in this one). I expected the same kind of magic when it had magic of its own.
Also starring Meg Ryan, ‘Sleepless in Seattle’ now finds Tom Hanks as her counterpart, playing a widower who’s moved from Chicago to Seattle to escape the memory of the love of his life. Except that his son, Jonah, concerned about his dad’s sullenness, calls in on a radio talk show for advice and lands his father on a nationwide broadcast.
Moved by his story and his expressions of love and mourning, hundreds of women feel compelled to write to him, care of the radio station that broadcast the show. But he’s not interested, and decides to move on with his life by dating a local architect. Unbeknownst to him, however, Jonah has become penpals with Annie (Ryan), another obsessed fan.
Impressed with her, Jonah will conspire to bring the two together.
What makes ‘Sleepless in Seattle’ so disarming is the way that it mixes drama, comedy and fantasy. Even though we begin the picture with a funeral, at no point does it become dour: Sam has a way of highlighting the absurdity of key moments and it allows for rays of levity to break through. Meanwhile, Annie is quirky with a sunny disposition.
Both have hilarious friends to keep them company: Sam has Jay (Reiner), a work colleague who is teaching him the basics of modern romance, seeing as Sam’s been off the market since the late ’70s and has only been with his ex-spouse. Annie has Becky (played by a pitch-perfect Rosie O’Donnell), a jaded woman who always has a biting put-down about her spouse.
The whole thing is ridiculous when you think about it: In real life, Annie would likely be seen as a stalker, given that she digs up all of Sam’s personal information, tracks him down to Seattle and goes all the way to his home to spy on him and Jonah. It’s also utterly impossible that Jonah would take her up on her offer and find a way to bring them together.
But it’s a fantasy. And as far as romantic fantasies go, it works incredibly well. There’s nothing more infectious than the rush of first love (i.e. crush) and this is what it’s all about, and nothing else. Anyone who loves that rush will buy into Annie’s obsession, the “magical” moment when Sam sees her for the first time, and even the ridiculously contrived ending.
(Which, of note, is inspired by ‘An Affair to Remember’, which is referenced many times during the film…)
‘Sleepless in Seattle’ plays to the romantic, not the pragmatic or realistic, in all of us. The pragmatic wouldn’t believe Annie’s choice of Sam over the near-perfect (if goofy) Walter. The realist would immediately disbelieve that Sam and Annie would even meet at the end. The fact that the picture ends when they meet, not afterwards, shows it’s a romantic fantasy.
Because after romance, comes reality. And it can be brutal. Who knows if Sam and Annie would even like each other? They might run out of things to say by the end of the elevator ride, even. They might not like each other: she might find him bland, he might dislike her erratic quality. But the romantic in us doesn’t care about this, we care only that they made it.
THEY MADE IT! They found each other!!!
What many of us want most is to be loved deeply, wholly, and we like to believe that there is someone out there who will love us as is, without compromise. But, in this big world, we have no idea where this person is; it could be anyone, anywhere. How the hell are we supposed to find him or her? Well, ‘Sleepless in Seattle’ finds a way, outlandish though it may be.
And it’s exciting. It stimulates our imagination. It pulls at our heartstrings. It makes the dream a reality.
The whole thing could have been a quagmire of sickly sweetness if not for the cast. Imagine someone other than Tom Hanks in the role of Sam, and ask yourself if it would have worked. Likely not: he can play melancholy and sweet just right. Same for Annie: At that point Meg Ryan did quirky better than anyone since Diane Keaton. And don’t get me started on her stunning mane!
Bill Pullman, whom I’m not always fond of, also nails it by being lovely yet dorky. And Barbara Garrick is excellent as the terrific but not quite perfect Victoria, whose enthusiasm for Sam seems too earnest. Heck, even the kids are great: Ross Malinger pulls off Jonah’s naivety, yet makes him real, and his friend Jessica is perfectly incarnated by Gaby Hoffman.
It’s really just a question of movie magic, that quality that you find on the silver screen once in a while but which can rarely be replicated. ‘Sleeping in Seattle’ has it. It has a solid script, a sure-handed director, a perfect ensemble cast, the right locations, the right soundtrack, even the right moment in time. Most of all, though it gives us the dream.
It may not be ‘When Harry Met Sally’, but it’s a keeper for the dreamer in all of us.
Date of viewing: January 3, 2016