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Sleepless in Seattle (Movie 1993): Unromantic + Humorless Romcom

Sleepless in Seattle Meg RyanSleepless in Seattle movie with Meg Ryan: Despite the presence of two personable and capable stars – Meg Ryan and Tom HanksNora Ephron’s 1993 romantic comedy does a disservice to the memory of Leo McCarey’s 1957 classic An Affair to Remember.
  • Sleepless in Seattle (movie 1993) review: Notwithstanding the welcome presence of Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks, Nora Ephron’s romantic comedy is an unromantic, unfunny homage to Leo McCarey’s 1957 classic An Affair to Remember.
  • Sleepless in Seattle synopsis: In Seattle, a young boy (Ross Malinger) tries to find his despondent widowed father (Tom Hanks) a new wife. A cute blonde (Meg Ryan) from Baltimore just might be The One.
  • Sleepless in Seattle was nominated for two Academy Awards: Best Original Screenplay and Best Original Song (“A Wink and a Smile,” by Marc Shaiman and Ramsay McLean).

Sleepless in Seattle (movie 1993) review: In Nora Ephron’s romcom, Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks suffer through an affair to forget

Ramon Novarro biography Beyond Paradise

The word “magic” seems to crop up every other minute in co-screenwriter/director Nora Ephron’s 1993 romantic comedy Sleepless in Seattle.

Ephron and fellow Oscar-nominated writers Jeff Arch and David S. Ward (in addition to an uncredited Delia Ephron) were apparently trying to create screen magic through sheer power of suggestion. If you repeat the word often enough…

Rehashing plot elements from Vincente Minnelli’s comedy The Courtship of Eddie’s Father and Claude Lelouch’s international hit And Now My Love, while borrowing key bits from Leo McCarey’s romance classic An Affair to Remember (itself a remake of McCarey’s own Love Affair),[1] Sleepless in Seattle tells a story bursting with romantic yearning and filled to the brim with fateful encounters.

Unfortunately, it’s also one saturated with audience-pandering mawkishness and near-lethal doses of saccharine – which helps to explain why Ephron’s romcom became a box office smash upon its release.[2]

Sleepless in Seattle plot: From Heartburn to hyperglycemia

Nora Ephron has written numerous hard-hitting essays; a good screenplay about a strong-willed woman, Silkwood; and the bestselling novel Heartburn, a damning indictment of former husband and All the President’s Men coauthor Carl Bernstein that was later turned into a Mike Nichols movie starring Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep.

But apparently hidden under Ephron’s tough-as-nails surface was a sentimentalist screaming to get out. With director Rob Reiner she cowrote When Harry Met Sally… (1989) and with sister Delia Ephron she cowrote (and directed solo) You’ve Got Mail (1998). Sandwiched between the two lay Sleepless in Seattle.

The narrative begins as recently widowed architect Sam Baldwin (You’ve Got Mail leading man Tom Hanks) moves with his 8-year-old son Jonah (Ross Malinger) from Chicago to Seattle in an attempt to get over his grieving for his late wife. On Christmas Eve, Jonah, worried about his still listless father, contacts a call-in radio program. Egged on by the boy, Sam (code name: “Sleepless in Seattle”) ends up discussing his feelings of loss and loneliness on national radio.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the United States, Baltimore denizen Annie Reed (When Harry Met Sally… and You’ve Got Mail leading woman Meg Ryan[3]) 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. – falls 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. After reading it, Jonah decides that Annie will be his next Mom.

‘The closest thing to heaven’ not close enough

As an homage to An Affair to Remember, Nora Ephron and her fellow co-writers have our hero and heroine brought together by fate – here in the form of your usual movie brat – at the top of the Empire State Building.

Of course, the promised meeting between Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr atop the world’s (then) tallest skyscraper never takes place in the 1957 drama. A car interferes with Kerr’s dash to “the closest thing to heaven” – even though that would have actually been the top of Mt. Everest.[4][5]

Topographical details aside, when Sleepless in Seattle finally reaches its romantic climax, this viewer was rooting for a direct meteor hit that would have sent Annie straight 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.

Ramon Novarro biography Beyond Paradise
Sleepless in Seattle Tom HanksSleepless in Seattle with Tom Hanks: Soon to become a back-to-back Best Actor Oscar winner (Philadelphia, 1993; Forrest Gump, 1994), Hanks succeeds in delivering a generally engaging – if less-than-profound – star turn in what is otherwise a bottomless ocean of mush.

Personable leads + classy cinematographer

What saves Sleepless in Seattle from the pits of romcom hell is the likability quotient of its two leads.

Although neither Meg Ryan nor Tom Hanks brings much depth to their characterizations – Ryan is particularly hindered by her underwritten role (“a Republican who had never had an orgasm” is how Ephron described Annie) – both are personable, eminently watchable actors.

Besides, Tom Hanks, who had been worried during production that his “sensitive” 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.

On the downside, the supporting players, generally a welcome relief from the maudlinness of most movie romances, don’t offer much help in this one.

As the Other Man, Bill Pullman overdoes his character’s allergy crises, while future talk-show hostess Rosie O’Donnell is no more than adequate as a drier, more staid Una Merkel type. Having said that, O’Donnell must be given credit for the best line delivery in the film: “I love that dream,” Becky matter-of-factly tells Annie, in reference to those instances when the dreamer finds herself walking naked in public places.

And let’s not forget Sven Nykvist’s cinematography – an ever classy asset, whether he’s working in Sweden (e.g., Ingmar Bergman’s Cries & Whispers and Fanny and Alexander) or elsewhere (e.g., Philip Kaufman’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors).

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.

We also learn that an inarticulate, faux-emotional chat on a call-in radio program may lead to an unexpected romance with a cute blonde.

Most important of all, we learn that a person can experience wondrous, ever-lasting romantic love more than once in a lifetime.

And that means when Sam and Annie go meet their maker at the top of heaven’s equivalent to the Empire State Building, they will be joined by Sam’s first wife for an afterlife of eternal three-way bliss.

Now, that would be a magical movie romance worth checking out.

Sleepless in Seattle (movie 1993) cast & crew

Director: Nora Ephron.

Screenplay: Nora Ephron, David S. Ward, and Jeff Arch. (Uncredited contributor: Delia Ephron.)
From a screen story by Jeff Arch.

Tom Hanks … Sam Baldwin
Meg Ryan … Annie Reed
Bill Pullman … Walter
Ross Malinger … Jonah Baldwin
Rosie O’Donnell … Becky
Gaby Hoffmann … Jessica
Victor Garber … Greg
Rita Wilson … Suzy
Rob Reiner … Jay
Barbara Garrick … Victoria
Carey Lowell … Maggie Baldwin
David Hyde Pierce … Dennis Reed
Frances Conroy … Irene Reed
Kevin O’Morrison … Cliff Reed
Dana Ivey … Claire

Voice Cast:
Caroline Aaron … Dr. Marcia Fieldstone

Scene(s) Deleted:
Parker Posey … Purple-garbed Sam Baldwin fan who comes knocking at his door

Cinematography: Sven Nykvist.

Film Editing: Robert Reitano.

Music: Marc Shaiman.

Producer: Gary Foster.

Production Design: Jeffrey Townsend.

Costume Design: Judy Ruskin.

Song: “A Wink and a Smile,” by Marc Shaiman & Ramsay McLean; performed by Harry Connick Jr.

Production Companies: TriStar Pictures.

Distributor: TriStar Pictures | Sony Pictures Entertainment.

Running Time: 100 min.

Country: United States.

Sleepless in Seattle Tom Hanks Meg Ryan Ross MalingerSleepless in Seattle with Tom Hanks, Meg Ryan, and Ross Malinger: Unlike Deborah Kerr and Cary Grant, Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks get to enjoy a brief moment together atop the Empire State Building.

Sleepless in Seattle (Movie 1993): Unromantic + Humorless Romcom” notes

Love Affair

[1] In The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, young Ron Howard (then known as Ronny Howard) tries to find his widowed father (Glenn Ford) a new wife.

And Now My Love / Toute une vie (1974) has lovers-to-be Marthe Keller and André Dussollier about to meet each other as the film comes to a close. (Two decades later, the same would happen with Irène Jacob and Jean-Pierre Lorit in Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colors: Red.)

Ramon Novarro biography Beyond Paradise

Love Affair* (1939) stars Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer. A second remake – with the same title – was directed by Glenn Gordon Caron, and stars Warren Beatty and Annette Bening, plus Katharine Hepburn in her final big-screen role.

Released the year after Sleepless in Seattle, the Beatty-Bening Love Affair was a box office bomb.

* Love Affair borrows key plot elements from Tay Garnett’s One Way Passage (1932), starring William Powell and Kay Francis as doomed transpacific lovers who vow to meet again on New Year’s Eve.

Hugely profitable global blockbuster

[2] With $126.8 million, Sleepless in Seattle was the fourth biggest domestic grosser during the calendar year of 1993, trailing only Steven Spielberg’s dinosaur thriller Jurassic Park, Andrew Davis’ Harrison Ford thriller The Fugitive, and Sydney Pollack’s Tom Cruise thriller The Firm.

Internationally, Sleepless in Seattle took in an estimated $101.1 million. Worldwide total: $227.9 million. Budget: $21 million (as always, not including marketing and distribution expenses).

Nora Ephron & Meg Ryan collaborations

[3] The ho-hum When Harry Met Sally… paired Meg Ryan with Billy Crystal. Director Rob Reiner has a supporting role in Sleepless in Seattle.

The surprisingly amusing You’ve Got Mail – the latest film adaptation of Miklós László’s Parfumarie (following The Shop Around the Corner, 1940; and In the Good Old Summertime, 1949) – was the third Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks pairing, following John Patrick Shanley’s Joe Versus the Volcano (1990) and Sleepless in Seattle.

How close to heaven?

[4] The reviewer is being facetious.

Deborah Kerr’s character says that the Empire State Building is “the closest thing to heaven” in New York City – not Planet Earth.

But then again, had she really cared to be as close to heaven as possible…

Deborah Kerr finally takes home an Oscar statuette

[5] The year Sleepless in Seattle received its two Academy Award nominations, An Affair to Remember costar Deborah Kerr – a six-time Best Actress nominee – was finally handed an Honorary Oscar.

It should be noted that the year An Affair to Remember came out, Kerr was nominated for another title, John Huston’s Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison.

Tom Hanks feeling uncomfortable about his character’s potential saccharinity and his ad-libbing are discussed in Nora Ephron and Delia Ephron’s Sleepless in Seattle DVD commentary.

Sleepless in Seattle movie credits via the American Film Institute (AFI) Catalog website.

Ross Malinger, Tom Hanks, and Meg Ryan Sleepless in Seattle images: TriStar Pictures.

Sleepless in Seattle (Movie 1993): Unromantic + Humorless Romcom” last updated in May 2023.

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1 comment

Maryann Allen -

One of my all time favorite romantic movies. Meg Ryan was absolutely beautiful. She didn’t need plastic surgery. She was already perfect! Tom Hanks also played a great role as well! Always thought he was handsome! Such pretty eyes!


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