- Director: Nora Ephron
- Writers: Jeff Arch, Nora Ephron, and Gary S. Ward
- Starring: Tom Hanks, Meg Ryan, Bill Pullman, Ross Malinger, Rob Reiner, Rosie O’Donnell, Victor Garber, Rita Wilson, Barbara Garrick, Caroline Aaron, David Hyde Pierce, and Frances Conroy
- Accolades: 2019 BBC Top 100 Films Directed by Women (#73), 2 Oscar nominations (Best Original Screenplay and Best Original Song – “A Wink and a Smile”)
- Where to Watch: Stream with subscription to AMC Plus, Buy or rent with Amazon Video, YouTube, and AppleTV
Writer/Director Nora Ephron and actress Meg Ryan teamed up for several of the better known romantic comedies of their era, or any era for that matter. That neither is better or more thought of today is probably a result of our biases as a society. I mention this partly because the movie spends quite a bit of time commenting on this very issue. Every woman in this movie is obsessed with the 1959 film An Affair to Remember, starring Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr. But Tom Hanks and his friend (Victor Garber) have never heard of it. “Must be a chick movie,” Hanks comments. But then he and Garber burst into tears talking about a war movie, much to the incredulity of Rita Wilson (Hanks’ real life wife).
I am not against movies like Sleepless in Seattle, and I definitely laughed a lot while watching it. If I have a problem with it, it’s that it seems to exist in sort of a dream world. The characters seem to sort of ramble in and out of reality. Maybe twice does anyone ever raise their voice, even when Meg Ryan is breaking up with her current fiance (played inoffensively by Bill Pullman). The events are scored almost exclusively to extremely on the nose old pop standards. When Hanks decides to put himself back out there and start dating again, we hear Gene Autry’s “Back in the Saddle Again.” When Ryan decides at one point that she’s going to stick with Pullman, it’s Tammy Wynette’s “Stand By Your Man.” When Ryan and Hanks finally meet on top of the Empire State Building at the end, we don’t get some big kiss with sweeping music. They sort of look at each other and go “huh?”
The basic contrivance of Sleepless in Seattle is that Hanks and Ryan don’t actually meet each other until the movie’s final scene, though they do see each other once across a road while she’s stalking him (oh, we’ll get there). The movie starts with a funeral for Hanks’ wife and the mother of his son (Ross Malinger). They move to Seattle to start a new life, but the son calls into a national radio advice show to say his dad “needs a new wife.” Hanks ends up talking on the show at length about how much he loved his wife and how hard it is to move on. Ryan hears him on a drive from Baltimore to Washington and starts to become more and more obsessed with him. In the end, of course, they meet up on top of the Empire State Building, just like in An Affair to Remember.
I like Meg Ryan, I really do. She’s beautiful and she’s fun to hang out with. In some of her movies she pushes the “I’m such a clumsy, ugly duckling” bit a little far, but not here. She generally works for me as long as she’s not the butt of the joke. So when I say I think her character makes completely bizarre choices in this movie, it’s not about that, it’s about the movie. She literally hires a private investigator to take pictures of Tom Hanks in Seattle so she can see what he looks like, then tells Bill Pullman she’s flying to Chicago for work, but instead she’s flying to Seattle so she can stand across the street from him and his son while they play catch on the beach. People have been imprisoned for far less. Ryan calls up her friend Rosie O’Donnell, and asks if what she’s doing is crazy. O’Donnell assures her it isn’t.
Some of my feelings about this movie also come from the fact that it does too good a job of being inoffensive (except for the stalking, about which the movie seems blissfully unaware of the negative implications). Nobody’s a bad person, everyone’s supportive. But to me that means that the main characters end up seeming, I don’t know, sort of nuts? The worst the movie can come up with about Pullman’s character is that he has a lot of allergies, the worst it can come up with the woman Hanks starts dating at one point, Victoria (Barbara Garrick), is that she has a weird laugh and has only been camping once. These people are madly in love with our characters, have many positive qualities, and go along with what those characters want to do. Hanks’ son thinks his meeting Ryan is “fate” because she has an opinion that Brooks Robinson was the best third baseman of all time. Kid, Victoria has box season tickets to the Mariners! I would do way more than date her for that! Instead he makes another call to the same radio show, on which he announces that his father “has been captured by a ho!”
So really what I’m saying is that I, in my capacity as a dude, completely failed to accept the basic premise of this movie, which is that Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan are “fated” to be together. And I feel bad about that. I am the David Hyde Pierce character in this scenario (playing Ryan’s brother), who says that “fate is just when two people figure out that their neuroses are compatible.” It is very clear to me that Meg and Tom should stay with their current people and live their extremely charmed lives. I am aware that his wife died, but he also lives on a houseboat in Seattle, and on his first date after his wife died finds a beautiful woman who says she was waiting for his call, laughs wildly at all of his jokes, and really wants to sleep with him. She lives in what appears to be a brownstone right on the Inner Harbor in Baltimore, and has a job where she can announce she’s “doing a story on call-in radio shows” and jet off to Chicago and/or Seattle whenever she feels like it.
But I digress. And the thing is, I really did laugh more at Sleepless in Seattle than I do at a lot of comedies, and it’s perfectly charming to hang out with if you don’t actually pay attention to anything. There are a lot of walk-and-talk conversations between the two leads and their friends, who mutter vague observations about love in the 90s, while they walk past various lovingly-photographed landmarks of Seattle and Baltimore. The director Rob Reiner (whose movies include When Harry Met Sally, written by Ephron and starring Ryan) plays a construction guy Hanks’ architect works with, who laments that women all want these days is “abs and a cute butt.” He informs Hanks that today, dating is about “tiramisu.” “What is that?” Hanks asks. “You’ll learn.” “But some woman’s going to want me to do it to her, and I won’t know what it is!”
Anyway, I’m pretty sure I’m being unfair to this movie. Hanks and Ryan are both fun to hang out with, there are are a lot of good jokes, and they barely have a chance to make googly eyes at each other at any point. The movie was a big success, enough that a few years later the studio got Ephron, Hanks, and Ryan back together for another, extremely similar movie, You’ve Got Mail, with the slight twist on the formula that their two characters fall in love while e-mailing each other but don’t realize that they know each other in real life. Sleepless in Seattle, meanwhile, has endured, despite Ryan’s career fading into the sunset and Ephron sadly passing away due to leukemia in 2012. A musical version of the story, titled Sleepless: A Romance, was supposed to hit the London stage this year, but has been delayed for obvious reasons. In the meantime, this movie will continue to meander along and insist its main characters are destined for each other, even when that makes zero sense.