Love takes a red-eye, and some hankies, to Seattle Long-distance love has 'em 'Sleepless'

June 25, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

It's still the same old story, a fight for love and . . . er . . . kisses.

Forget glory. Glory's over. Glory's as dead as "Last Action Hero."

Love is what "Sleepless in Seattle" is all about. Romance. Smooching. Cuddling. Holding. And only the faintest vapor of actual -- ughk! -- sex.

Is this a chick movie, or what?

The fundamental woman things apply. It's about a young lady -- a Sun feature writer, by the way, who is frustrated in Baltimore -- trying to find the nerve to reach out and grab the perfect man. And is he ever perfect. A widower, not a messy divorcee or philanderer, he loves his son and is sensitive without being so icky as to join support groups and yammer endlessly about his feelings. Plus, he has a dream job without being in any danger of achieving celebrityhood -- he's an architect.

One problem: They haven't met.

Another problem: They live on opposite coasts.

A third problem: She's engaged to someone else.

And yet a fourth problem: He's dating someone else.

And still a fifth problem: He hasn't seen "An Affair to Remember," the old '50s weeper that functions as the acknowledged ur-text to "Sleepless in Seattle."

While dealing with these issues, the film also serves as a kind of debating society on one of the key dilemmas of our times. Love: fate or accident?

Is there one perfect person out there for you, whom you'd better grab no matter what the price in dignity and pain? Or do you just settle for the first available jerk when it occurs to you it's time to get married? It doesn't take a rocket scientist to guess the movie's answer. It is, after all, a romance, not a study in random anomie.

It begins one night when Annie Reed (Meg Ryan) happens to be listening to talk radio while, by another cute accident, Sam Baldwin (Tom Hanks) has been connected to the host and is confessing that he feels lousy since his wife died and he's moved to some West Coast burg (sorry, didn't catch the name) to get away from familiar things.

His sincerity, his mournfulness, his decency reach out of the box and touch her passionately -- and about 7 million other women, too.

She's from one of those nutty Baltimore WASP families and still dresses as if she's in prep school and is engaged to The Sun's "associate publisher." This guy looks as if he hasn't been able to digest a meal in years. There's not much zest in the relationship.

Thus she begins an almost indecent secret courtship, tracking down the voice that so moved her on the box, then investigating him. She even uses The Sun as cover to get a trip to Seattle to meet him. (Oh, those wacky Sunsters! It must be so much fun to work in that place!) But once there, she cannot quite force herself to take the big step.

Meanwhile, he's going about his disconsolate life, dating a woman who's clearly unworthy because she starts giggling before the punch line of his joke and her laugh sounds like a chain saw tearing through a brass spittoon. Both Sam and Annie feel the acute absence of that one special person. This gives the movie its central structural difficulty -- its star-crossed lovers aren't in the same movie, so we don't have their chemistry, their pizazz, their heat to draw us in.

What we do have is gobs of charm, as each performer offers his or her cuddly best, and too much reliance on the humor of an "ironic" soundtrack; when, for example, Hanks is getting ready to date again and we hear Gene Autry's "Back in the Saddle Again." A lot of this doesn't go a very long way.

Worse still, the plot becomes overly elaborate with zany machinations as it falls to Hanks' kid to engineer an elaborate plot that aspires to bring them together at the top of the Empire State Building. At least he's seen "An Affair to Remember."

The Nora Ephron who wrote "When Harry Met Sally . . ." is only occasionally present in the film, and when that Nora is gone she's missed. That was the acerbic ex-journalist Nora, who viewed everything through a newsroom cynic's squint, the quintessential smartass who once noted that she thought women with big breasts who complained about how hard their lives were were full of s . But the more ubiquitous Nora Ephron here is the romantic dreamer, the one who wept for days after seeing "An Affair to Remember," so she's tried to remake it, which gets at the movie's most passionate virtue.

It's light as a souffle filled with helium and campaign promises, but it loves love. It also loves love. It even loves love. It believes in love. It celebrates love. It worships love. Love, it says, makes the world go around, which may or may not be true, but it makes the movie go around. It's as cuddly as a teddy bear. Hug it. Squeeze it! Feel warm all over. Snarfle the hankies! Load up that tissue!

"Sleepless in Seattle"

Starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan

Directed by Nora Ephron

Released by TriStar

Rated PG

***

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