Charles Perrault did the world of literature an immense favor when he penned Cinderella and Hollywood film makers have been paying homage to his quill ever since. The romantic comedy is essentially the Cinderella story told, and retold and rehashed ad nauseam; resurrecting the myth, that the girl of any man’s dreams need not be high born to still be considered a woman of quality. Such is the case with director, John Turteltoub’s While You Were Sleeping (1995); transplanting the setting from a pastoral Parisian countryside to the steel and concrete jungles of Chicago; our winsome waif reconstituted as a subway token-collecting daydreamer who aspires to marry the prince of her choosing, only to discover another more amiable prospect waiting in the wings. While You Were Sleeping is an exemplar of how, with just a bit of rewriting, the time-honored (and oft regurgitated) cliché can continue to entertain us and seem fresh as new. Part, if not all, of the movie’s appeal is bottled in Sandra Bullock; unafraid to be made dowdy, her laryngitis-voiced Lucy Eleanor Moderatz perfectly conveying the sweet sorrow of being pitifully alone at Christmas. Daniel G. Sullivan and Fredric LeBow’s screenplay makes the most of Bullock’s strengths, her particular yen for finding subtler comedy in the most perfunctory of situations; as when Lucy and her unanticipated knight in shining armor, Jack Callaghan (Bill Pullman) fight to remain vertical on a perilous patch of sidewalk ice, only to wind up horizon and scrambling over each other until playfulness expectedly segues into more serious prospects for full-blooded romance. It isn’t that we haven’t seen all of this before. We have. But director, Turteltoub makes it all appear rather disarming. Besides, Bullock and Pullman are a very engaging pair. In hindsight, it is a genuine pity they never appeared together again in a movie.
While You Were Sleeping is incredibly well cast; Jack Warden as the crusty, if benign, godfather, Saul; Glynis Johns as the perpetually befuddled grandma, Elsie; Peter Boyle and Micole Mercurio as the delightfully intrusive parents, Ox and Midge; Monica Keena, as their curious younger daughter, Mary, and, Michael Rispoli, as the laughably obtuse wannabe lady’s man, Joe Fusco Jr. Even Peter Gallagher (a.k.a Peter Callaghan), who spends the bulk of the movie in a coma, makes an indelible impression as the romantic ideal onto whom Lucy projects the noblest of qualities. The screenplay ingeniously gets to the real mettle of the man in increments. Peter: who only has one testicle, thanks to an unfortunate accident with a pencil while playing basketball (yeow!); whose numerous meaningless affairs with women have led him into the arms of Ashley Bartlett Bacon (Ally Walker) - a petulant, demanding harpy who is already married to someone else: Peter, who pretended in his youth to rescue a pair of baby squirrels from their fallen nest, but actually was responsible, first, for knocking them out of their home with a rock. These are not the qualities by which any prince is made or measured. Peter is, in fact, exactly what Saul calls him: “a putz”, privileged, and with finer good looks and the gift of slick suaveness his brother Jack does not possess.
It does not take long for Lucy to figure out her ideal man has fallen either beyond or below her level of expectation; Jack is more to her speed and liking, and any future happiness she might have with the Callaghan clan must involve a clean slate of honesty, beginning with her own true confessions. While You Were Sleeping is fairly uncomplicated about the outcome of its story right from the beginning. There is, in fact, never any doubt our Lucy will find true happiness at the end of this rainbow. And yet, we cannot help but admire the strides in the journey, deliberately orchestrated to link all points between ‘A’ and ‘B’; the whole alphabet of arbitrary machinations intervening in between. Key to the film’s overall success is Phedon Papamichael’s luminous cinematography, capturing the frigidness of wintertime in the ‘windy city’, but also the warming appeal of Chicago’s holiday lights. This proves a perfect complement to Randy Edelman’s effervescent underscore, interpolated with various pop tunes to set the mood. Edelman’s score provides a musical bridge for our heroine’s daydreams: her triumphs and disappointments. Music in the movies often gets overlooked as merely incidental. But Edelman’s cues give the audience insight about the inner doubt, sadness and aspirations in Lucy’s convoluted odyssey to find true love.
While You Were Sleeping is rarely shown on TV, occasionally resurfacing around the holidays. But its story could just as easily have been set at the 4th of July, Columbus Day or any other benign spot on the calendar. Christmas is incidental to the story. Ironically, this makes While You Were Sleeping the perfect Christmas movie. Immediately following an ebullient TripTik through Chicago’s downtown core under the main titles, we regress to an idyllic retrospective of Lucy’s childhood; Lucy (played by Megan Schaiper) recalling how her father’s kindly rearing after her mother’s death ‘gave her the world’: at least, in possibilities; generating a spark within to pursue her dreams. Flash forward to the present: Lucy is a tollbooth operator for Chicago’s subway transit. The cut between childhood optimism and the realities of adulthood is applicable to everyone. For life rarely gives us what we think we need to be happy. It does, however, almost always provide for the essentials necessary for us to survive its disappointments. Certain she will never fall in love, Lucy’s heart is drawn to one particular subway patron who frequents her terminal; the immaculately attired businessman, Peter Callaghan.
Socially, Lucy and Peter are complete opposites and worlds apart. He hails from the Harry Rosen set. She buys her jeans at Wal-Mart. Then, the unthinkable happens. Peter is the target of a botched robbery on the elevated platform while waiting for the next train. He is pushed onto the tracks and knocked unconscious; Lucy rescuing Peter from the oncoming tram by rolling him to safety. Lucy is a hero…well…sort of. For here the comedy of errors begins with one colossal flub: one of the nurses (Margaret Travolta) mistaking Lucy for Peter’s fiancée; an easily correctable ruse. But Lucy feels compelled to perpetuate this lie, or rather, unable to become disentangled from its fallout after Peter quietly slips into a coma. Lucy is introduced to Peter’s doting – and fairly dotty – family; mom Midge, dad, Ox, grandma, Elsie, younger sister, Mary and eldest brother, Jack. From Dalton Clarke (James Krag), one of the colleagues in Peter’s law firm, Lucy learns Peter is missing a testicle; a bit of history that will come in very handy later when Jack, doubting Lucy’s credibility, demands she provide the family with a piece of evidence only someone intimate with Peter would know. Since the Callaghans spent Christmas Day at the hospital, Ox invites Lucy for a post-Christmas dinner. She is reluctant at first, but accepts the invitation and is surprised when the family welcomes her unquestioningly with open arms. They even find the time to buy her a gift. In the meantime, Lucy’s kindly apartment landlord, Joe Fusco (Mike Bacarella) tries to finagle a romance between her and his newly paroled son, Joe Jr. – a Brooklyn-styled bum – harmless and inept – who also has a fetish for women’s shoes. Like all of the gags written into the Sullivan/Lebow screenplay, this one will pay off handsomely later on.
Unable to sleep, Lucy travels at midnight to attend Peter in his hospital room. Unaware Saul is nearby, Lucy quietly confesses her incredible loneliness to Peter, agreeing to play along with the Callaghans’ misconception she is his fiancée. “Do you believe in love at first sight?” Lucy quietly whispers to Peter as Saul looks on, “Nah, I bet you don't. You're probably too sensible for that. Or have you ever, like, seen somebody? And you knew that, if only that person really knew you, they would, well, they would of course dump the perfect model that they were with, and realize that YOU were the one that they wanted to, just, grow old with. Have you ever fallen in love with someone you haven't even talked to? Have you ever been so alone you spend the night confusing a man in a coma?” Saul allows Lucy’s game to go only so far, informing her that he is aware of the truth, but also promising to remain silent because, regardless of her motives, Lucy has rejuvenated the family’s faith in Peter’s recovery. But Saul also makes it clear he will do everything in his power to prevent the family from being hurt by such a betrayal should Lucy’s motive become less than altruistic.
Actually, Saul is a little in awe of Lucy himself and quite willing to allow her to partake of the Callaghan’s good graces and glad tidings. Things reach an unlikely head when Lucy begins to fall in love with Jack and vice versa; Jack momentarily sideswiped by Joe Jr., who lies to him about Lucy being his girl for quite some time. Derailed in his romantic pursuits, Jack becomes momentarily bitter. “Hey,” he tells Lucy, “What do you know about my family? Spending a week with them does not make you an expert!” to which Lucy astutely surmises, “…and spending a lifetime with them hasn't made you one, either!” It’s an open wound for Jack, who has yet to reveal to Ox he wants out of the family-owned estate furniture business to pursue his own passion as a furniture maker. Eventually, Jack sets aside his prejudices and pursues Lucy for his own. She cannot deny her feelings for Jack, but is very much afraid to solidify them with a proposal of marriage; particularly when Peter begins to stir from his coma. Unable to recognize Lucy at a glance, the family assumes Peter is suffering from temporary amnesia. Peter is driven to question his own sanity by reciting specifics of his childhood from memory. In the meantime, Ashley has telephoned Peter’s penthouse, leaving a message on his answering machine to say she has decided to accept his proposal of marriage. Saul promises Lucy he will handle the situation on her behalf. Alas, Saul’s way of managing things is to goad Peter into proposing to Lucy and for their wedding to take place in the hospital’s chapel post haste. Lucy reluctantly accepts Peter’s impromptu proposal; the wedding crashed by Ashley and her husband (Shea Farrell); also, interrupted by Jack who professes at last his undying love for Lucy too.
Amidst the hullaballoo Lucy confesses to the Callaghans she fell in love with Peter but in her desperation for happiness lied to them because, for the first time in a really long while, she sincerely felt as though she were part of a real family – a feeling she has not had in a very long time. Although she treasures the Callaghans as though they were her family, she now realizes she loves and respects them too much to lie to them any longer, and, in telling them the truth, now fears she can never be a part of their lives again. This bittersweet realization convinces Jack to propose marriage the next day. He arrives at Lucy’s tollbooth with an engagement ring he casually places in the slot where the subway tokens usually goes, causing the forlorn Lucy to suddenly look up and realize the entire Callaghan clan has come to share in this moment. Lucy and Jack are married and we learn in the film’s epilogue - as a subway train pulls from its depot with Lucy, in her wedding dress, and Jack embracing - Jack gave Lucy a trip to Florence, Italy for their honeymoon – the one place Lucy has always dreamed of going.
While You Were Sleeping is a delightful romantic comedy; one with a screwball edge, that nevertheless treats its adults, ultimately – and most refreshingly – as adults. This, in and of itself, makes the film a rarity. And Sandra Bullock and Bill Pullman have chemistry plus; a quality unseen since Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan teamed up for Rob Reiner’s When Harry Met Sally (1989). While ‘While You Were Sleeping’ may not be as sophisticated as this aforementioned comedy gem, it nevertheless resolves to tell a bittersweet and ultimately satisfying story of two people dreadfully alone in the big city, still yearning for the same things in life and ultimately having those prayers affirmed in the end: a message too many sitting in the audience can relate to with a modicum of angst and continue to fervently hope for in their own lives. Bullock’s fairy tale princess is an every woman with a true heart of gold; someone we can root for with more than a measure of hopefulness, justly deserving of the proverbial ‘happy ending’. Clichés aside, While You Were Sleeping keeps its story line fresh, its characters fetching and its comedy bouncing along at a merry hum. And director, John Turteltoub understands the intricacies of comedic timing; allowing each scene just enough breadth to warm our hearts in the afterglow of some exquisitely concocted fluff, topped off with a healthy dollop of good ole-fashioned schmaltz. It is a hardened cynic who can turn a blind eye to such joyous silliness.
It’s been nearly two years since Buena Vista Home Video announced the North American release of While You Were Sleeping on Blu-ray; likely to remain unfulfilled, given Disney Inc.’s present lack of commitment to issuing any of their non-animated features in hi-def state’s side. In the interim, While You Were Sleeping made its debut in the U.K. and Australia. Various sites advertise this disc as Region ‘B’ locked when, in fact, While You Were Sleeping is Region ‘A-B-C’ friendly and will therefore play anywhere in the world. But let us not get so excited about this just yet, as the results are not altogether as satisfying as one might hope. While You Were Sleeping on Blu-ray is a definite upgrade from the old DVD. Overall richer colors, more accurately rendered flesh tones and a tighter image: these are the pluses. But film grain is problematic, at times taking on a digitized look – gritty, rather than grainy – and hinting of pixelization. These imperfections are more obvious on larger monitors and – particularly – in projection. Also, there appears to be a strange lack of fine detail during darker scenes; contrast somewhat lower than anticipated. Again, the movie does not look awful. Alas, it is hardly up to Blu-ray standards. The big upgrade here is in the 5.1 DTS audio; easily blowing the old Dolby Digital DVD out of the water. Bass is solid and dialogue and effects are exceptionally integrated. Very nicely done!
Disney Inc. continues to market ‘theatrical trailers’ as ‘special features’. Let’s just agree at this late stage that they’re not! But it’s all we get on this disc – bare bones and typical of Disney’s efforts. Honestly, isn’t it about time we were given the rest of their Touchstone, Caravan, Hollywood Pictures output in hi-def? Titles like, I Love Trouble, Pretty Woman: director’s cut, Down and Out in Beverly Hills, Can’t Buy Me Love and Splash among them?!? My most fervent (dream) hope would be for a third party distributor like Criterion to iron out the details of bringing at least some of the aforementioned titles to Blu. But this is likely a pipedream, given Disney Inc.’s territorial natural. No one does Disney except Disney. So, Disney – get busy doing it!!! Bottom line: if you are a fan of While You Were Sleeping you will want to snatch this disc up through Amazon.u.k. It definitely improves on the old DVD. Just do not expect perfection and you will be alright…or disappointed – as I sincerely was.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)