The late 1980’s/early ‘90’s undeniably experienced a renaissance in the romantic comedy; a genre that had largely vanished after the mid-sixties, and was then all but reduced to pre-teen and teenage ‘T’ and ‘A’ sexist humor by the late seventies. Yet, it all came back to us with a ripening romantic flourish after Norman Jewison’s Moonstruck (1987). Arguably, the greatest of them all remains Rob Reiner’s When Harry Met Sally (1989); that tender, occasionally rambunctious, but always adult ‘cute meet’ turned into ‘joyous defeat’ then ‘gallant victory’, as scripted to perfection by the late Nora Ephron. In the wake of When Harry Met Sally other studios tried to capture and bottle its zeitgeist, or at least ride the tidal wave of box office cache it brought back to the genre that Reiner and Ephron had wrought in spades. Ephron herself would even attempt a follow-up: the enchanted Sleepless in Seattle (1993).
If nothing else, we can thank Ephron and the movie for reintroducing us to the 1957 weepie, An Affair to Remember; remarkably, a classic that – like other movies made at 2oth Century-Fox throughout the 1930’s, 40’s and 50’s – had gone largely unseen by the public for several decades because of Fox’s sheer lack of interest in re-issuing their golden oldies on home video. After Sleepless in Seattle’s debut, Fox was inundated with requests to screen An Affair to Remember; sparking the cultural resurgence of their own catalogue features to tape, then DVD, and now Blu-ray that we continue to sincerely enjoy to this day.
I remember going to the movies back then to see Sleepless in Seattle with baited anticipation: my expectations for another When Harry Met Sally somewhat deflated after seeing this rather quiet, somewhat downbeat tale of a widower whose prepubescent son lures him out of mourning by making him confess his sorrows on a pop-psychiatrist’s radio talk show – only to have his wounds metaphorically licked by an avid listener living on the other side of the country. Then, it didn’t seem to work for me – or rather did, because the memory of Sleepless in Seattle continued to linger, both in my heart and head long after the final fade out. It just wasn’t the movie I arguably wanted to see. Even from the perspective of being a romantic comedy, ‘Sleepless’ seemed strained – especially given Ephron’s decision to keep her lovelorn protagonists (played winningly by an astute, Tom Hanks and winsome and affecting Meg Ryan) apart until the very end of the picture. No – callous, as I was back then – I dismissed Sleepless in Seattle as an artistic ‘let down’; a movie unable to hold a match to When Harry Met Sally (a very tough act to follow, indeed).
Only now - considerably older and somewhat wiser - do I understand that Nora Ephron wasn’t trying to compete with, or merely duplicate, the essence of her other masterpiece. After all, how could she? Instead, she had embarked on another challenge; quite unique, equally as heartfelt, and just as genuine at its emotional core. Sleepless in Seattle is something of a grand experiment for a romantic comedy. It’s more heavily sedated in drama than laughs – though it elicits a chuckle or two by drawing from the generosity of its stars, who, to their credit, remain ever more real people in lovelorn limbo than romantic/comedy clichés as scripted on a page.
There is something authentic about former Chicago architect and newly widowed, Sam Baldwin and Baltimore Sun reporter, Annie Reed; a pair of emotionally panged and heart sore dreamers separated by a span of miles; one inexplicably drawn to the other by that other-worldly, cosmic attraction…dare I say…can it be love? At its crux, Sleepless in Seattle is an affecting exaltation of this invisible force that moves the earth beneath our feet; makes the emptiness of the hours melt away and changes everything about our lives in the inkling of a moment’s notice – unexpectedly – and with the quintessence of a promise made to find that perfect someone and be loved by them in return.
The movie speaks to us on an almost subliminal level we may not even be immediately aware of; calling us out from our jaded humdrum. It finds its laughter through tears (always the most affecting combination) and doesn’t commit itself to being ridiculous for the sake of a thirty-second communal wheeze/sigh from the audience that is as thin and evaporative as cotton candy. Quite simply, you have to love, admire and respect Ephron for taking the high road on this one. Clearly, Jeff Arch’s story, on which Nora Ephron based her screenplay (written with Arch and David S. Ward) touches a chord. The trick and the genius of Nora Ephron is that she remains capable of conveying intangible sentiments in visual terms.
Sleepless in Seattle won’t dazzle you with flashy imagery. Sven Nykvist’s cinematography is fairly straight forward. Nor is the movie’s pop-laden soundtrack of time-honored standards, interpolated with a new score composed by Marc Shaiman, ever allowed to overpower the senses; the music appropriately placed to subtly underline, rather than punctuate, each moment. As they say, collectively, these scenes work. We get exactly the point and purpose of Ephron’s chef d'oeuvre; our heartstrings plucked in such sustained, subtle ways that at first, perhaps, we are not even entirely certain the movie has reacted as it should on our minds and hearts. Then again, how secure are we in our daily experiences; unknowing - as we all are - of what the days will bring to the collective tapestries of our interwoven lives?
And Sleepless in Seattle isn’t trying to adhere to any already established template of the romantic comedy. That’s refreshing. Today, we have become so hung up on classifying movies into cookie-cutter genres that when one comes along without arbitrarily fitting all of the criteria we struggle to make sense of what the film-maker is trying to tell us. Ephron’s tale is one of initial sorrow; an open wound (the loss of a beloved spouse) healed by the unlikeliest of chance meetings. We aren’t expected to burst into tears or explode into fits of uncontrollable laughter. It’s not that kind of film. But Sleepless in Seattle effectively plucks at our humanity, intuitively connecting on a deeper level of understanding. The transparency of its nod to An Affair to Remember is ironically regrettable – the use of clips from Leo McCarey’s iconic 1957 tearjerker inserted to mark some of Sleepless in Seattle’s more introspective moments, is quite unnecessary. We don’t need the parallel; the penultimate ‘cute meet’ between Sam and Annie, just a nod to the happy ending denied Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr.
The plot of Sleepless in Seattle begins thus: with the funeral of Maggie Baldwin, Sam’s beloved wife. Sam’s narration expresses the emotional weight of this loss. He decides both he and his son, Jonah (Ross Malinger) would greatly benefit from a clean break. So they move to Seattle. Only this change in locale doesn’t necessarily equate to a positive change in their mood. Jonah is forlorn; Sam, depressed. Fast track eighteen months into the future: it’s Christmas – the roughest time of the year for both father and son. Jonah decides what Sam really needs is a new wife. Without Sam’s knowledge or permission, Jonah calls into a popular night owl, pop-psychiatrist’s radio program; the Dr. Marcia Fieldstone Show. When Sam finds out, he’s mortified – reluctantly taking the phone away from Jonah, only to spill his own heartfelt emotions to the good doctor (voiced by Caroline Aaron) on the air.
Driving on her way to a family reunion, Baltimore Sun reporter Annie Reed is affected by Sam’s genuineness and by Jonah’s sincerity in attempting to get his ailing father some meaningful grief counseling; albeit on a coast to coast hook up. Annie is engaged to Walter (Bill Pullman); a rather accident-prone neurotic who has phobias and allergies to practically everything. The next day at work, Annie shares her listening experience with best friend and editor, Becky (Rosie O’Donnell); who completely empathizes with Sam’s plight. Moreover, the two women share their reminiscence about An Affair To Remember, and, after watching – and bawling over – this movie again, Annie is impulsively spurred to write Sam a romantic overture; telling him to meet her atop the Empire State Building on Valentine’s Day. It’s a mash letter at best. But Becky discovers Annie’s prose and decides to forward her unintentional correspondence on to Sam. Further to the exaltation of true love – or at least its’ reasonable facsimile herein – Annie agrees to fly to Seattle to do a piece on ‘radio talk shows’.
In the meantime, motivated by his conversation with Dr. Fieldstone, Sam has begun dating a co-worker from his architectural firm named Victoria (Barbara Garrick). She has a rather annoying laugh. Jonah sees right through Victoria. Sam just can’t wind up with her. Jonah is even more convinced Annie has potential to be his dad’s perfect mate after reading her letter, particularly the part where she mentions her devotion to the Baltimore Orioles. Sam is unimpressed by Jonah’s meddling in his affairs. He absolutely refuses to entertain any notions of replying to Annie’s letter or to take Jonah to New York to meet Annie. On the advice of his best friend Jessica (Gaby Hoffman), Jonah replies to Annie’s letter in Sam’s stead, agreeing to her chance meeting atop the Empire State Building.
Ephron now moves into her clever take on ‘two ships passing in the night’ scenario; with Sam catching a fleeting glimpse of Annie as he is dropping Victoria off at the airport. Of course, Sam doesn’t know who she is. But Annie spends the next few days cautiously observing Sam and Jonah from a distance. At the beach, Annie mistakes Sam’s sister, Suzy (Rita Wilson) to be his new girlfriend. Remembering Annie from the airport, Sam introduces himself with a rather awkward ‘hello’, Annie reciprocating, but then getting cold feet and disappearing without a trace. Assessing her reaction as utterly misguided - the notion of pursuing this man whom she really doesn’t know even more foolhardy - Annie retreats to New York to be with Walter on Valentine’s Day. Sam is unimpressed to say the least.
Only now, Jonah hatches a plan with Jessica's help; disappearing after school and flying to Manhattan without Sam’s knowledge or permission; determined as ever to meet Annie atop the Empire State Building. After a frantic search for his son, Sam finally gets an inkling to press Jessica, who confesses that Jonah is already in the Big Apple on his mission to get Sam and Annie together. Panicked, Sam takes the next plane out. Meanwhile, we see Annie, thoroughly distracted and frankly bored as she sits across from Walter inside the famed Rainbow Room. It just won’t work. Walter’s all wrong for her, and after expressing her doubts to him about their relationship the two part amicably; Annie rushing off towards the Empire State Building only to discover its observation deck has already closed for the night. Sam, who has been reunited with Jonah on its observation deck, comforts his son now. Jonah is rather despondent after being unable to find the woman he firmly believed would become his dad’s new wife and his new mother. It’s a heartbreaking moment of realization; one tempered by Sam’s gentleness.
Persuading a sympathetic guard to let her make the elevator ride to the top, Annie exits her car just as Sam and Jonah are getting into theirs going down to the lobby. Discovering Jonah’s knapsack left behind on the observation deck, Annie pulls out the boy’s teddy-bear and cuddles it, firmly believing her last chance at love has slipped away. Instead, Sam and Jonah exit the elevator after having convinced their operator to take them back to the roof to retrieve Jonah’s knapsack. Annie tenderly asks Jonah if the stuffed animal is his, and replies, “Are you Annie?” Sam cannot believe his eyes, remember Annie from the beach. “You're Annie?” he says with baited pause, suggesting they share more than an elevator down to street level, by adding “Shall we?” The movie concludes with a computer-generated panoramic fly around the top of the Empire State Building, its windows suddenly illuminated in the shape of a giant red heart as the camera pulls back to reveal twinkling stars in the night sky.
It’s so important to make someone happy, as Jimmy Durante warbles at the end while the credits begin to roll. Sleepless in Seattle does just that and arguably a lot more – exquisitely, in fact, with a tender illumination that never wanes in its ability to warm our collective hearts. It’s impossible not to like this film, and yet equally as challenging to like it as much as Ephron’s masterpiece, When Harry Met Sally. Perhaps, it’s unfair to compare the two. They really are apples to oranges. But Ephron gave herself a very tough act to follow. Setting aside the afterglow of appreciation for When Harry Met Sally one can more easily see the virtues of Sleepless in Seattle, and, with renewed clearly; admire its less obvious narrative construction and characterizations, and cheer loudly for its protagonists when, despite the odds, their penultimate meeting turns out so effortlessly well. It isn’t often the movies fake sincerity with a straight face. But Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan seem inspired. They’re very real apart and surprisingly natural when briefly thrust together. Laugh and the whole world laughs with you. Cry and you do it alone: or so the saying goes. But Sleepless in Seattle allows its audience both opportunities under its communal umbrella: a very solid, equally as engaging, good story that never fails to hit its’ bull’s eye with Cupid’s arrow. In a restless world…like this is…we need more great romantic comedies like this one.
Sleepless in Seattle gets the full treatment via Sony’s third part distribution deal with boutique label, Twilight Time. Its’ 1.85:1 image sparkles; Sven Nykvist’s glossy, softly focused cinematography superbly reproduced in 1080p. The visuals are richly detailed. Contrast is perfectly pitched. The palette of colors expressed in the movie was never intended to be ultra-vibrant and this disc embodies Nykvist’s use of the drabness of Seattle to express mood and advance the story: a fantastic mastering effort – top drawer in all departments. The lossless audio is less impressive; albeit its’ DTS 5.1 maintains the rather standardized use of dialogue, with music cues the only real opportunity for the surround channels to jump to life. Clarity is superb, but the sonic range is occasionally tinny. I don’t think Sleepless in Seattle could sound any better. And yet, somehow the audio left me marginally wanting for more. Apart from the isolated score, virtually all of the extras included on this disc are ported over from the original Columbia SE DVD release. These include a rather tepid commentary by Nora and Delia Ephron; a ‘Love in the Movies’ featurette that isn’t all that much better, the music video to Celine Dion and Clive Griffin’s re-envisioning of Nat King Cole’s classic ‘When I Fall in Love’ and, finally, the original theatrical trailer. Bottom line: highly recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)