Sleepless in Seattle

(Nora Ephron, USA, 1993)


Sleepless in Seattle is a feel-good movie that leaves at least some viewers feeling rather uneasy. Director and co-writer Nora Ephron (This is My Life, 1992) tackles the great, lost genre of romantic comedy and considers it in relation to the fumbling, interpersonal manners of our time. The result is a cagey, non-committal film, indulging the old Hollywood illusions about love without ever really taking such dreams seriously.

Like a lot of contemporary romances, Sleepless in Seattle plays out its central love story against a lightly sketched world of disconnection, pain and neurosis. Baldwin (Tom Hanks) is a single father still grieving over the death of his wife; his son coaxes him one night onto a telephone to share his sorrow with the nation on talkback radio. Annie (Meg Ryan) hears Baldwin's voice over the airwaves and decides that he is the man for her.

The film's chief novelty is that it shows the lead-up to this 'perfect' love affair, but not the relationship itself – a handy way for Ephron to avoid the messier complications of her subject.

Mostly the film focuses on the everyday culture of gossip and confession surrounding the vexed topic of love – making an especially sharp distinction between the behaviours and tastes of chicks (who adore the old Cary Grant-Deborah Kerr classic An Affair to Remember [1957]) and guys (who would rather watch The Dirty Dozen [1967]).

In this as in all its running gags, Sleepless in Seattle takes easy recourse in a certain, brittle sarcasm – a battle-scarred belief that men and women will always communicate badly across an abyss of sexual difference.

Yet its characters still pine for the transforming, healing power of true love – and so do the filmmakers, judging from the maddeningly non-stop playlist of old romantic songs on the soundtrack. This tearing ambivalence may be true to the 1990s zeitgeist, but Ephron is selling short the vision of love embodied so vividly, once upon a time, by Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant and company.

MORE Ephron: Mixed Nuts, Hanging Up, You've Got Mail

© Adrian Martin June 1994

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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