Sleepless in Seattle

It's so rare these days to see romantic comedies made that I feel torn about criticizing Nora Ephron's Sleepless in Seattle. Ever since the Vietnam War and the late l960s, American audiences have become so cynical that they can no longer accept movie about romantic love and unity without self-conscious mockery or irony.

Still, as other film genres had to be revised to accommodate the zeitgeist, so did romantic comedies. While romantic love is still a universal value and a desirable goal in our culture, the particular language of romance–the words, gestures, and behaviors through which it is expressed–assume different meaning and different nuances for each period.

To be sure, Sleepless in Seattle has a lot of charm, but it is not as witty or accomplished as one would like it to be. What's most interesting about the picture is how it takes the classic structure of romantic comedy, more precisely screwball comedy, and incorporates into it new characters and new themes.

At the center of Ephron's new movie are the philosophical notions of destiny and fatalism. It's the kinds of ideas that we can all relate to: Are our lovers or significant others a product of accidental meeting, people we run into by, say, attending a social event. Or, are they people who were meant for us, kindred souls matched in heaven. Of course, the latter concept is the more genuinely romantic–and appealing. But Sleepless in Seattle, based on a screenplay by Ephron, David S. Ward, and Jeff Arch, effectively plays with the tension between these ideas.

For most of the story, its two protagonists, clearly made for each other, don't meet at all. The tale begins in Chicago, when Sam Baldwin (Tom Hanks), an architect who recently lost his beloved wife, decides to begin a new life and relocates with his young son Jonah (Ross Malinger) to Seattle. Cut to Baltimore and Annie Reed (Meg Ryan), a newspaper reporter, engaged to be married to Walter (Bill Pullman), a man allergic to everything (cheese, nuts, strawberries, flowers)–in short a kvetch. Just seeing Walter in bed, wearing his fancy pajamas with his face turned toward the humidifier in the room, is enough to know that he is not for Annie.

One day, while driving from Baltimore to Washington, D.C., Annie listens to a call-in show, in which Sam mournfully laments the death of his wife. He describes his loss so eloquently and so passionately that without even realizing it, Annie falls in love with him. She soon writes to Sam, labeled by the radio's
psychologist-host as “Sleepless in Seattle.” Annie keeps telling herself and her best friend (Rosie O'Donnell) that Walter is the perfect man for her. We, however, know better.

We have seen movies in which people have fallen in love with a picture of an attractive woman or a man. But to fall in love with a voice that belongs to a man who just uttered two sentences on the radio It's probably the greatest achievement of Sleepless in Seattle that it makes this premise completely credible.

The beginning of the film is slow and not very engaging. Intercutting between Meg Ryan in Baltimore and Tom Hanks in Seattle, Ephron establishes pretty well her two characters and the locale in which they live. The interaction between Hanks and his precautions son, who was the one to call the radio talk show and then forced his father to talk, may remind you of Dustin Hoffman and his son in Kramer Vs. Kramer.

Sleepless in Seattle suffers from similar problems of Ephron's previous one, This Is Your Life. In both pictures, the enemy seems to be TV sitcoms: You can almost put your finger on the scenes that imitate the TV format (in structure, punch line, etc.) and those that successfully steer clear from its confines. But even when her direction is not swift and smooth as its should be, Ephron (who wrote the screenplays for Silkwood and Heartburn) shows mature understanding of relationships–and sophistication too.

Ephron also plays tribute to the role of American movies–in this case the classic romance An Affair tao Remember–in shaping our dreams and fantasies about love. Leo McCarey's l957 Affair to Remember has become a landmark: A remake of the l937 Love Affair, the film is now being remade with Warren Beatty and Annette Bening.

The acting is for the most part good. The versatile Tom Hanks, who continues to stretch, shows that he is one of our best comedians. If he doesn't shine in this film, as he did in Big or Punchline (both in l988), it's because he plays a more passive part. Still, Hanks brings wit, style and healthy cynicism to his role of a young widower, a man who initially believes that true love can happen only once in a lifetime.

Meg Ryan is Meg Ryan, i.e. sweet and cute, but she lacks the depth and resonance of the classic screwball comediennes. One can only imagine what Irene Dunne, Claudette Colbert or Carole Lombard, still the genre's best performers, would have done with her role.