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Nora Ephron died almost exactly a year ago today. Her film career bloomed after some very solid accomplishments in journalism, and the movies she wrote and directed were uncommonly witty and civilized. Ephron began by writing the dead serious Silkwood and advanced to the surprise hit When Harry Met Sally..., a romantic comedy with a facility for fresh, spicy dialogue. Just four years ago she made one of her best, Julia & Julia.
Back in 1993 Ms. Ephron's second directed film Sleepless in Seattle became a major hit. The movie's basic mission is to apply the reflexive self-awareness of movie lore -- a focus that was central to the film-school generation a couple of decades before -- in service of the Chick Flick. Sleepless channels and reconfigures the delirious Love-Is-Magic fantasy of 1957's An Affair to Remember, and then proceeds to analyze the entire Kleenex Matinee genre. How to rekindle a 1940's romance movie vibe for modern filmgoers? Remind them that some of their strongest movie experiences were spent watching shows like Miracle in the Rain, Now, Voyager and Penny Serenade. Ephron's Sleepless spells out the unconscious fantasy that links its main characters with the audience at large: "You don't want to be in love, you want to be in love in a movie."
The original story by Jeff Arch is dangerously similar to dozens of old pictures in which children convince divorced parents to re-unite or steer a widowed parent in the direction of a new mate. Chicago architect Sam Baldwin (Tom Hanks) still sees his deceased wife Maggie (Carey Lowell) in his dreams. For a new start he takes his son Jonah (Ross Malinger) to Seattle. When Christmas makes Sam depressed, the precocious Jonah dials radio shrink Dr. Marcia Fieldstone (voice: Caroline Aaron) and spills their entire story. Sam gets on the line, and instead of venting his anger expresses how much he misses Maggie. Fieldstone's broadcast reaches hundreds of thousands of sympathetic female listeners. One of them, Baltimore journalist Annie Reed (Meg Ryan), reaches through her cynicism and is touched. Despite the fact that she's engaged to the worthy Walter (Bill Pullman), Annie feels the need to hold out for something more romantic, special, perhaps magical. Jonah detects this in Annie's letter (among hundreds) and, even though Sam has begun dating another woman, writes back suggesting that Annie meet his father at the top of the Empire State Building on Valentine's Day. Annie recognizes the reference to An Affair to Remember and wonders at the coincidence that Walter has arranged for their own romantic New York rendezvous on Valentine's Day. Undeterred by the rational advice of her best friend Becky (Rosie O'Donnell), Annie hires a detective agency to find out more about Sam. She then impulsively flies from Baltimore to Seattle just to see what magic will occur if she 'accidentally' runs into him.
Writing talent, a flawless production and Ms. Ephron's spirited direction permit Sleepless in Seattle to sidestep the potential potholes in this openly nostalgic romance. The 'precocious kid brings adults together' angle, usually a narrative kiss of death, is deftly handled. When Jonah and his neighbor sort-of girlfriend order expensive airline tickets online (how cute!) we restrain our desire to see him throttled within an inch of his life. Just exiting his college-age baby fat days as Mr. Cute, Tom Hanks is able to convey both maturity and a sense of loss. He's a softie but still plenty masculine. The screenplay gets a lot of mileage out of the fact that Sam hasn't been on the dating scene for fifteen years -- AIDS has shifted the ground rules 180°. When he hears about some mysterious thing called tiramisu, Sam worries that it's a sexual innovation he hasn't heard of.
Sleepless in Seattle toys with the concept of the Chick Flick, to the point that Sam and his brother Greg (an impossibly thin Victor Garber) respond to sister Suzy's (Rita Wilson) description of the ultimate weepie situation in Affair to Remember with a sarcastic put-on about their own maudlin experience watching that 'male' tear-jerker The Dirty Dozen. But Meg Ryan's Annie Reed is conflicted with indecision about what she really wants from life. Walter is fine but somewhat passive. He's supportive and understanding and everybody including Annie thinks he's a real find. Annie's problem is that she feels like she's settling for something less that her ideal. She pursues her dream even when the dream is Sam, a guy she's never even met.
The movie wins us over from the beginning, with Ephron's understated crane shot in a graveyard. Gary Foster's producing team gives the kind of gloss that says "quality", gracing each scene with just the right set or visual touch. We quickly overlook the fact that nobody in the film has any economic concerns. Sam is a working professional and Annie has an actual paid writer's job in a real newspaper (This detail alone will bring nostalgic tears to some viewers' eyes). Sam lives on a trendy houseboat in Seattle. Annie stays at the Plaza in New York and goes casually shopping at Tiffany's. Nobody thinks anything of throwing money at problems of the heart, whether it's flying cross-country at a moment's notice or literally throwing money at a taxi stand to skip ahead in line. Now really, wouldn't Sam more likely call the cops and the airline to retrieve Jonah? The utter charm and likeability of our stars sees to it that none of these moments smack of decadence. Ms. Ephron's romantic fantasy has pulled us into the "old movie zone" where matters of the heart are paramount.
We're told that Meg Ryan was far from a first choice as Annie; it is nice to think that nobody squelched the Hanks-Ryan pairing due to their misunderstood marvel/flop Joe Versus The Volcano. As with a Golden Age Hollywood gem, no bad decisions show: the film looks great, sounds great, and the marvelous script has a choice observation or genuinely witty line every few seconds. As the movie is from the now long-ago year of 1993, we see no cell phones and no Internet. Yet the film's only dated aspect is a soundtrack crowded with romantic standards sung by famous pop stars that parallel the action on screen. The cute factor does get a little ripe when Tex Ritter warbles Back in the Saddle Again as Sam re-enters the dating scene. All the songs are apt, but they play as if the filmmakers were afraid of leaving any gaps in the aural fabric.
The supporting cast is a special bonus. Rosie O'Donnell is a winner as the 'best friend' -- her Becky is given her own tale of marital calamity to tell. When she dispatches Annie to the final date and is left at the elevator, Nora Ephron holds for a beat, as if to acknowledge the good guys that get left behind. Rita Wilson is terrific, going all weepy-faced when she breaks into tears over the plot over a 30-year-old movie. Poor Bill Pullman is infected with Ralph Bellamy disease yet comes out shining -- the story allows his Walter an honorable exit. The real thankless role is Victoria (Barbara Garrick), Sam's date who laughs too soon and too much at whatever he says. Ms. Garrick gets, like, 50th billing; we're happy to see that she's still going strong as a working actress. Bopping in for colorful and effective bits are favorites Rob Reiner, Frances Conroy, David Hyde Pierce, and Dana Ivey.
The screenwriters' happy conceit is to reproduce the conclusion of An Affair to Remember in a different key -- nobody is run over by a truck while looking up at heaven, I'm happy to say. If Annie's behavior toward Walter sometimes seems unforgiveable, remember that this is a movie where everybody relates events to the same movie. Besides, Annie tosses away her relationship with Walter before she knows that the other is anything but a dream. Lo and behold, Sleepless in Seattle is a Chick Flick that male viewers need not resent. Like all warm & fuzzy old-time romances, it knows when it is time to tilt up to the stars and fireworks. The only question is, will it be accepted as a modern masterpiece of the 1990s?
The Twilight Time Blu-ray of Sleepless in Seattle is a stunning transfer of this handsomely filmed (by camera legend Sven Nykvist) color show. It comes with a 5.1 DTS track and viewer-friendly English subs. Twilight Time has also secured an Isolated Music Track for Marc Shaiman's soundtrack score, which finds some very affecting heart-throb moments between the needle-drop standards sung by the likes of Jimmy Durante, Carly Simon, Céline Dion, Joe Cocker and Ray Charles.
A 1993 promotional video gives us the filmmakers and cast discussing the very real notion that we now base our love lives on movies we like. 1 A music video also appears, with Céline Dion and Clive Griffin.
Recorded for the earlier DVD special edition yet especially welcome now is a feature commentary by Nora and Delia Ephron. How can one say it - these two surely caroused with the cultural élite, and yet they come off as very nice people. Delia explains that her duty on the movie was writing a script revision, even though her credit is as an Associate Producer. This is surprising, as I remember entire paragraphs of text from an old commentary on John Frankenheimer's The Train being excised because of dialogue reassigning writing credits -- the WGA doth wield a long and powerful arm.
Julie Kirgo's insert liner notes need make no excuses for Sleepless in Seattle and instead celebrate the talent and charm of Nora Ephron. After raising her lance high to champion the seminal 50s Chick Flick Love is a Many-Splendored Thing, Ms. Kirgo brings up a pertinent practical point that escaped this viewer -- just what makes us think that the somewhat passive Sam and the assertive Annie are actually going to get along, after the They Lived Happily Ever After moment? That question could be applied to for 90% of the great screen romances that kept lovers apart as part of their formula. Perhaps Rick Blaine had thought this issue out when he said farewell to Ilsa Lund back on that airfield in Casablanca.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Sleepless in Seattle Blu-ray rates:
1. Could be worse, as earlier generations modeled their romances after clichés in pop songs, or polka lyrics, for all I know. It seems pretty tragic now when young couples align their love lives with commercial culture trivia like superhero fantasies. The cure for this is to fall in love with a woman at least partially backgrounded in an entire different culture. EVERYTHING that happens becomes a private discovery. And you thought Savant was a cynic.
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T'was Ever Thus.