Sleepless in Seattle (United States, 1993)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

8-year old Jonah Baldwin (Ross Malinger) misses his mother, who died from cancer eighteen months ago. More than that, however, he recognizes that his father, Sam (Tom Hanks), is desperately lonely. So, on Christmas Eve, Jonah calls a radio talk-show psychologist and asks for help. Forced onto the phone by his son and identified as "Sleepless in Seattle", Sam reluctantly (at first) opens up and talks about his love for his dead wife and the things that made her special. Across the country in Baltimore, Annie Reed (Meg Ryan) is listening to the syndicated program, and Sam's testimonial of love brings tears to her eyes. Even though she is engaged to Walter (Bill Pullman), Annie begins to wonder what it would be like to meet Sam. She even becomes one of thousands to write a letter to him. But, when circumstances make an assignation possible, the question is whether either Sam or Annie will have the courage to follow through with it.

There are those who will claim that Sleepless in Seattle is too corny, with sugar-coated cuteness filling in for the lack of a strong plot. And, while they have a point, there's something that the cynics are missing -- it's meant to be that way. By its own admission, this film is intended as a throwback to the screen romances of the past (An Affair to Remember in particular, which is cited numerous times, and borrowed from explicitly and implicitly). Anyone expecting a tale of stark modern life from Sleepless in Seattle has walked into the wrong theater. This is a dreamy, romantic fantasy whose mood falls somewhere between magic and reality.

Coincidence is the backbone of Nora Ephron's story, wending its way through the plot with uncanny repetitiveness. The concept of destiny is an important thematic element. At the beginning of the film, Annie is a realist who dismisses the idea of a supernatural sign as nothing more than a random occurrence. By the end of Sleepless, she has become a believer in fate. Considering the unusual nature of the bond she develops with Sam, how could she not?

While Sleepless in Seattle represents a pleasant antidote to the summer's burgeoning tide of action/adventure fare, it is not without flaws. The character of Walter, although nicely essayed by Bill Pullman, is superfluous. His inclusion is meant to illustrate aspects of Annie's life and personality, but, as the movie progresses, he becomes a hindrance. Then there's Annie's family. Their quirkiness, as exhibited in a dinner sequence early in the movie, is often far more irritating than endearing.

The ending is a little abrupt, but not in a bad sense. It's usually a positive sign when a film keeps the audience hungry. We want a little more -- perhaps just a crumb to nibble on -- even though it's clear that the story has reached its natural conclusion. More often than not, as is the case in Sleepless, this is an indication that the characters have been well-defined and deftly portrayed.

Tom Hanks, who is frequently chosen for parts that demand energy and verve, does an excellent job in a subdued role. It's easy enough to make the widower into a cliche, but Hanks' heartfelt performance, combined with an intelligent script, avoid that common trap. Instead of a person lifted from stock, we are given a man we can accept and whose grief we can sympathize with. Meg Ryan has a less challenging role, and, compared to what she did in Prelude to a Kiss (where she played an old man in a young woman's body), there's nothing noteworthy about her portrayal of Annie.

Sleepless in Seattle has been billed as a "romantic comedy", but the accent is more on romance than humor. Comic moments are kept to a minimum, and there are only a couple of openly funny scenes (one involves a comparison of "male" and "female" movies -- An Affair to Remember versus The Dirty Dozen). While lacking the unfettered charm and exuberance of Kenneth Branagh's Much Ado About Nothing, this film is nevertheless enjoyable on its own feather-light terms.

Sleepless in Seattle (United States, 1993)

Director: Nora Ephron
Cast: Tom Hanks, Meg Ryan, Ross Malinger, Bill Pullman, Rosie O'Donnell
Screenplay: Nora Ephron, David S. Ward, and Jeff Arch
Music: Marc Shaiman
U.S. Distributor: TriStar Pictures
Run Time: 1:45
U.S. Release Date: 1993-06-25
MPAA Rating: "PG"
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1