Welcome back to Filling the Gaps, our little series on films we should have seen, but somehow missed.
As film fans mourned the recent passing of groundbreaking screenwriter Nora Ephron, I realized it was time to watch Sleepless in Seattle, her most successful film (granted, "most successful" is a matter of degrees with a filmography like hers). I'm sorry I haven't watched it until now; I fell of my chair laughing in certain scenes, and cried big giant monkey tears at least three times in the movie.
I tend to avoid romantic comedies like the plague, for the simple reason that I tend to love them a little too much, which creates such a cognitive dissonance with my feminist and intellectual bona fides that my brain simply shuts down (I'm not kidding. I once was forced to watch a Katherine Heigl romcom on a plane. It pains me to say I loved it. (Seriously, Romcoms On A Motha-------- Plane. THE HORROR).
Sleepless in Seattle clearly rises miles high above the genre, setting an example that was never replicated in Hollywood (there are some French romcoms that live up to it, but, of course, they're in French). I've written previously about my love for Serendipity, which shares a certain approach with SiS; they take the fundamental implausibility of the genre and build it into the plot.
What could be more ridiculous than a Baltimore news reporter stalking a lonely father in Seattle? Frankly, with a tagline like that, it's impossible to believe that the movie wouldn't be a complete trainwreck. But it works, for a few reasons.
1. The Double A-Plot Structure: Most movies have one A-plot and a number of side plots, and they all come together at the end of the film. Sleepless instead tells two distinct stories, allowing neither to fall completely into ridicule. Of course, Meg Ryan's story skirts much closer to the edge of believability, which brings us to the next point.
2. Meg Ryan's Performance: Holy shit, is she good in this movie. She's channeling a young Nicole Kidman, with a wide-eyed intensity to match. Unlike other romcom heroines, she's extremely confident. Her bad decisions aren't a result of a lack of self-esteem, but of a deep-seated unhappiness that she barely seems aware of. The script conveys this economically; when she tells Bill Pullman it's not him, it's her, we know that's actually true. It is her, and that's ok. She ends things and takes a stupid chance because life has disappointed her. And that's one of the most realistic character choices I've seen in a mainstream movie.
3. Tom Hanks' Performance: I cannot even speak about it. Total perfection. Where Annie's disappointment drives her character forward, Sam moves with his anger, which has warped him so badly that he can't love anyone. I'm not convinced that changes by the end of the movie, which is why the film ends where it does.
The ending truly is remarkable in so many ways. Throughout the film, I kept wondering, "Is it just me, or is Sam a terrible father?" He belittles Jonah constantly, ignoring his emotional needs. So when he reunites with Jonah, he actually realizes he's been a bad father. And without anyone explicitly having to say that he's become completely self-absorbed after his wife's death, it's acknowledged, bringing the character's story around full circle.
That's what's great about the film; it's more than just fluff. There are very serious undercurrents bubbling to the surface, which is rare in the romantic comedy genre. The romance, while highly compelling, provides a platform for stories about human weakness.