Writer/director Nora Ephron (who died in 2012) certainly aimed high with Sleepless in Seattle, a romantic comedy that slyly ridicules Hollywood's unrealistic depictions of love and at the same time wants to be the same sort of preposterous-but-beloved screen romance it spoofs.
Amazingly, Ephron pulled it off thanks to a first-rate cast (this was the film that elevated Tom Hanks to major star status) and some deadly accurate writing. Even 20 years later it still plays like a charm.
Sam Baldwin (Tom Hanks) is mourning the death of his wife.
Left with his young son, Jonah (Ross Malinger), Sam tries to make the best of it but can't keep depression at arm's length.
Jonah gets so concerned about Sam's funk that he calls a late-night radio talk show psychologist and puts Dad on the line.
Dubbed "Sleepless in Seattle" by the unctuous shrink, Sam ruefully says of his late wife: "I had it great and perfect for a while." But love like that "just doesn't happen twice."
All over America women's hearts melt as they listen to Sam's lament.
In the first week after the broadcast, the Seattle post office receives 2,000 proposals of marriage intended for the sensitive "Sleepless."
In Baltimore, newspaper reporter Annie Reed (Meg Ryan) decides to do better than that. Although she's a tough pragmatist engaged to a sweet but dull fellow (Bill Pullman), Annie feels the mysterious pull of "Sleepless's" bittersweet musings. Under the guise of doing a story, she convinces her editor (Rosie O'Donnell) to let her ferret out the mystery man.
Narratively, Sleepless in Seattle is a comedy of missed connections. Even when Annie travels to Seattle to find "Sleepless," she misses encountering Sam by seconds.
Against this wryly romantic story, however, Ephron and co-writers David S. Ward and Jeff Arch (with an uncredited assist from her sister, Delia Ephron) fashioned a hilarious running commentary spawned by the classic 1957 tear-jerker An Affair to Remember. In that film Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr fall in love on a cruise and agree to meet months later atop the Empire State Building. Only she's hit by a car and confined to a wheelchair and, well, it works out in the end.
It all works out in the end in this movie, too. You can try to sneer, but Sleepless in Seattle still will suck you in.
Ephron's directing skills (before Sleepless she was better known a writer of hilarious magazine columns and author of Heartburn, about her marriage to reporter Carl Bernstein) showed a marked improvement over her first directorial outing, This Is My Life. She still exhibited some pacing problems – about halfway through a chunk of Sleepless in Seattle seems to be treading water – but she showed herself to be a master of mood, with quirky humor offering a deft counterbalance to the bathos.
Plus, she got great performances. Hanks and Ryan have never been more appealing, and the supporting roles are remarkably well drawn. (Look especially for Barbara Garrick's turn as a desperately hopeful woman whom Sam dates and Jonah hates.) And you've got to admire the chutzpah of the musical score, which draws heavily on such classic sentimental wallows as Nat King Cole's "Stardust," Tammy Wynette's "Stand By Your Man," and even Jimmy Durante’s growling rendition of "Make Someone Happy."
Sappy and silly, sardonic and sophisticated, Sleepless in Seattle courts disaster at every turn but triumphs nonetheless.
Other films in the series “While the City Sleeps: After Dark”
Mondays at 6:30 p.m.:
- February 4: The Big Sleep (1946) Not Rated
- February 11: Sleepless in Seattle (1993) Rated PG
- February 18: Nights of Cabiria (1957) Not Rated
- February 25: After Hours (1985) Rated R
- March 4: Dark City (1998) Rated R
- March 11: Date Night (2010) Rated PG-13
- March 18: Blade Runner (1982) Rated R
- March 25: L.A. Confidential (1997) Rated R
Admission to these films is free.
The series complements While the City Sleeps, the 2013 Adult Winter Reading Program.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.