' ' Cinema Romantico: Some Drivel On...Sleepless in Seattle

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Some Drivel On...Sleepless in Seattle

Perhaps ‘daring’ is not the right word to describe Nora Ephron’s 1993 rom com “Sleepless in Seattle” but, I dunno man, where modern Hollywood studios are concerned, when you’ve got two big stars like Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, just standing right there on your poster, making a movie with the intention of keeping them apart for two hours, that’s a little daring, pushing back against formula. What’s more, if you are Hanks, you are relying on Ryan to properly do her job in the other scenes and vice-versa. If he/she isn’t, you might be getting hung out to dry, people asking “I get this, but not this.” It’s like they are Jaeger pilots in “Pacific Rim” but if Jaeger pilots were in different Jaegers. It takes a lot of belief in your co-star, which is what “Sleepless in Seattle” comes back to, a certain amount of belief, in what you believe you deserve and how it could happen. But who knows, maybe Hanks and Ryan were told, make this one apart and you’ll make one together in five years.

That movie five years later was “You’ve Got Mail”, of course, about the mysticism of dial-up Internet dating. If that felt fanciful for the time, though, “Sleepless In Seattle” is like two whole castles in the air, one on each opposing coast, in Baltimore and, as the title implies, the Puget Sound metropolis. Ephron’s variation of a fairytale begins when eight year old Jonah Baldwin (Ross Malinger), despondent about his dad, Sam (Hanks), who is despondent about his deceased wife, the reason father & son came to Seattle in the first place, phones a romantic radio show hosted by Dr. Marsha (Caroline Aaron) and puts his dad on the phone. Though Aaron is never seen, she does excellent voice work, mixing helpful and haughty. As good as Aaron is in this moment, though, Hanks is even better in coming across both put upon but willing to go along, suspect of his sudden guidance counselor but sincere in what she helps him access. It’s quite a feat, illustrating the delicacy of his overall performance, not simply a rom com leading man waiting around all movie to fall in love but a widowed father who is trying to both maintain and move on.

As good as Hanks is, however, Ryan might be even better, or at least just as good, in a trickier role as Annie, the woman on the opposite coast who hears Sam on the radio. This scene takes place in her car on a long drive home and as he listens and Sam keeps opening up, the camera keeps cutting closer and closer to Annie until, in a glittering close-up of her big watery eyes, for a second, truly, seems to fall under the spell of romance. Indeed, she uses her position as a journalist to try and find out about Sam even as she, like so many others, sends Sam a letter which Jonah, working as self-appointed screener along with his pal Jessica (Gaby Hoffmann, manifestly hilarious), likes the most. Even so, Annie is engaged to Walter (Bill Pullman), which is where Ryan truly shines. If it’s not enough that she is emotionally cheating on her future spouse with someone that she has never met, Walter, while written as something of a stiff, his prominent allergies fashioned into a recurring joke, is nevertheless a good, if boring, guy. Ryan, though, imbues her part with a kind of I-Don’t-Know-What-I’m-Doing bungee jumping glow, embodying the idea of, quote-unquote, Following Your Heart, for better or worse, rather than settling, deftly maintaining our sympathy. And when Annie and Walter finally break up, Pullman improbably owns the moment, as a gallant a gentleman as, I don’t know, real-life Tom Hanks. You want them both to have a happy ending.

In most movies, Walter is just an impediment to what we’re all waiting for but the plays a bigger role here, a window into the real world, despite his comical eccentricities, that Annie is leaving behind. Admittedly Ephron leans a little too heavily into the Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus trope with Annie and her friends being devotees of Leo McCarey’s 1957 “An Affair to Remember” while the same movie just makes Sam and all the dudes roll their eyes. Still, the recurring presence of this movie within “Sleepless in Seattle” is not just a recurring joke but the whole point, the latter ending in the same place as the former – atop the Empire State Building. Ephron uses McCarey’s film to poke holes in Annie’s romantic inflations, her best friend (Rosie O’Donnell) astutely observing “You don’t want to be in love, you want to be in love in a movie.” True. But rather than dissect rom coms within its “An Affair to Remember”-ish structure, “Sleepless in Seattle” gives itself over to the fantasy, evoked in how Annie and Sam upon finally meeting (spoiler), don’t even speak, they just look at one other, dumbfounded and starry-eyed, and then walk off screen together into their rom com Camelot.

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