'Sleepless in Seattle' review: Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks in an affair to forget
In Krzysztof Kieslowski's Three Colors: Red, the last installment of his "Three Colors" trilogy, the word "magic" is never bandied about. No need to. Magic is just about everywhere in that lyrical tale about love and fate. On the other hand, the word "magic" seems to crop up every other minute in writer-director Nora Ephron's Sleepless in Seattle. Ephron and fellow Oscar-nominated screenwriters Jeff Arch and David S. Ward (plus an uncredited Delia Ephron) were apparently trying to create screen magic through the power of suggestion. If you repeat it often enough...
Following in the footsteps of Claude Lelouch's 1974 hit And Now My Love, with added touches borrowed from Leo McCarey's 1957 romance classic An Affair to Remember (itself a remake of McCarey's own 1939 Love Affair), Nora Ephron's 1993 box office smash Sleepless in Seattle is a tale of romantic yearning and fateful encounters – but one in which human feelings and emotions are replaced by audience-friendly cutesiness and near-lethal doses of saccharine.*
Believe it or not: Nora Ephron also wrote 'Silkwood' and the novel 'Heartburn'
Nora Ephron wrote numerous hard-hitting essays; a good screenplay about a strong-willed woman, Silkwood; and a damning indictment of former husband and All the President's Men coauthor Carl Bernstein, Heartburn, a novel that in 1986 was turned into a movie starring Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep.†
But apparently hidden under Ephron's tough-as-nails surface lay a sentimentalist screaming to get out. In addition to Sleepless in Seattle, there have also been When Harry Met Sally... and You've Got Mail; not coincidentally, all three starring Meg Ryan.
'Sleepless in Seattle' synopsis
Sleepless in Seattle begins as recently widowed architect Sam Baldwin (Tom Hanks) moves with his 8-year-old son Jonah (Ross Malinger) from Chicago to Seattle so as to forget his late wife. Worried about his father, Jonah contacts a call-in radio program. Egged on by Jonah, Sam (code name: Sleepless in Seattle) ends up discussing his feelings of loss and loneliness on national radio.
At the other end of the United States, Baltimore denizen Annie Reed (Meg Ryan) is on her way to meet her fiancé, Walter (Bill Pullman), when she accidentally tunes into that station. Annie – along with thousands of other women across the U.S. – fall in love with Sam's voice and his longing for "magic."
A few days later, her best friend, Becky (Rosie O'Donnell), mails a letter Annie had written to Sam. When Jonah reads Annie's letter, he decides that she will be his next Mom.
'The closest place to heaven on Earth' not close enough
Inspired by An Affair to Remember, Nora Ephron and her fellow co-writers have our hero and heroine brought together by fate – in the form of your typical movie brat – at the top of the Empire State Building.
Of course, in that Cary Grant-Deborah Kerr star vehicle, the meeting ends up never taking place. A car interferes with Kerr's dash to "the closest place to heaven on Earth" – even though that would actually have been the top of Mt. Everest.
Topographical details aside, by the time Sleepless in Seattle reached its climax, I was ardently hoping for a meteor hit that would send Annie directly to heaven itself. But realistically speaking, no one in their right mind could believe from the get-go that anything would prevent Baltimore's Annie from having a tête à tête with Seattle's Sleepless.
Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan make syrupy romance tolerable
What saves Sleepless in Seattle from total disaster is the sheer likability of its two leads. Neither Tom Hanks nor Meg Ryan brings much depth to their characterizations – Ryan, in particular, suffers because Annie is such an underwritten role ("a Republican who had never had an orgasm" was Ephron's description of Ryan's character motivation) – but both of them have that indefinable quality that turns mere actors into movie stars. (Admittedly, my idea of "movie star" may not be yours; and vice versa.)
Tom Hanks, who had been worried during production that his "sensitive," grieving widower would come across as an insufferable wimp, has the advantage of getting (or creating, since the actor also ad-libbed) some of the best sardonic lines in the film.
Rosie O'Donnell's 'naked dreams'
On the downside, the supporting players, generally a welcome relief from the mawkishness of most movie romances, do not offer much help in this one. As the other man, Bill Pullman overdoes his character's allergy crises. After a couple of minutes, this viewer was the one sneezing and gasping for air each time Pullman's Walter showed up on-screen.
Future talk-show hostess Rosie O'Donnell is no more than adequate as a drier, more staid Una Merkel type, but O'Donnell must be given credit for the best line delivery in the film. "I love that dream," she matter-of-factly tells Annie – referring to those dreams in which the dreamer finds herself walking naked in public places.
Men are from Seattle, Women are from Baltimore
Watching Sleepless in Seattle, we learn that men and women have different sensibilities (women cry while watching An Affair to Remember; men don't cry, period); that an inarticulate, faux-emotional chat on a call-in radio program may lead to unexpected romance with a cute blonde from Baltimore; and that a person can experience magical and ever-lasting romantic love more than once in a lifetime.
Thus, when Sleepless and Annie go meet their maker at the top of heaven's equivalent to the Empire State Building, I expect them to be joined by Sleepless' first wife for a life of eternal three-way bliss. Now, that is a movie I'd like to watch.
'Love Affair' and 'Heartburn'
* And Now My Love / Toute une vie starred Marthe Keller and André Dussollier as would-be lovers who meet each other only as the film comes to a close.
Love Affair starred Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer. It would be remade for the third time in 1994. Glenn Gordon Caron directed Warren Beatty and Annette Bening, in addition to Katharine Hepburn in her final big-screen role. Released the year after Sleepless in Seattle, the film was a major box office bomb.
† Heartburn, which also featured Stockard Channing, Jeff Daniels, Maureen Stapleton, and filmmaker Milos Forman (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Amadeus), was directed by Mike Nichols, who also handled Silkwood.
In this 1983 drama based on real-life events, Meryl Streep played nuclear facility worker Karen Silkwood. Also featured were Kurt Russell and Cher.
When Harry Met Sally... paired Meg Ryan with Billy Crystal. The surprisingly entertaining You've Got Mail, a reboot of The Shop Around the Corner, had Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks joining forces and exchanging longing looks once again.
Sleepless in Seattle (1993).
Director: Nora Ephron.
Cast: Tom Hanks. Meg Ryan. Bill Pullman. Ross Malinger. Rosie O'Donnell. Gaby Hoffman. Victor Garber. Rita Wilson. David Hyde Pierce. Rob Reiner. Frances Conroy. Tom McGowan. Caroline Aaron. Dana Ivey.
Screenplay: Nora Ephron. David S. Ward. Jeff Arch. Delia Ephron (uncredited). From an original story by Jeff Arch.
'Sleepless in Seattle': Oscar Movies
Nora Ephron's Sleepless in Seattle was nominated for two Academy Awards.
- Best Original Screenplay
- Best Original Song
Nora Ephron. David S. Ward. Jeff Arch.
Winner: Jane Campion for The Piano.
"A Wink and a Smile." Marc Shaiman (music). Ramsey McLean (lyrics).
Winner: "Streets of Philadelphia" from the movie Philadelphia. Music and lyrics by Bruce Springsteen.
This Sleepless in Seattle review is a revised edition of a commentary originally posted in Oct. 2004.
Sleepless in Seattle cast info via the IMDb.
Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan Sleepless in Seattle images: TriStar Pictures.