A Love Story in Which the Lovers Never Kiss

GARRY WILLS

July 06, 1993|By GARRY WILLS

Chicago. -- This movie -- ''Sleepless in Seattle'' -- had me hooked from one of its opening credits: ''A Nora Ephron film.'' After all, her parents wrote one of my favorite movies, ''Desk Set.'' And Ms. Ephron herself, after spending most of her life running away from her parents' world, has returned to it in order to write and direct movies that reveal her quirky sensibility.

You have to be ready for aspects of that sensibility -- for instance, continuing reports on food fashion. Here, we learn about rice vs. potatoes, tiramisu and fruit platters on planes. Since the sensibility is Jewish, it will also involve family -- children and parents, husbands and wives. It may involve in-jokes, like having Ms. Ephron's friend Calvin Trillin play a family relative out of prison on parole. It will certainly give us minor characters with a pungently Dickensian quality -- in this case, Clarice, the ultimate in zombie baby sitters.

An Ephron film will be full of movie characters talking about ''real'' movies -- does that make sense? Can Cary Grant, in this film, be realer than Tom Hanks? I guess so. Movie references are everywhere. The very opening plays with the old movie device of opening with, say, the Empire State Building in order to tell you that the story takes place in New York. Ms. Ephron opens with a lone man and his son on a cemetery hill -- till the camera pans slightly back and the whole Chicago skyline rises behind the hill. Not that we miss the Empire State Building -- it comes at the end, photographed from angles you never saw before.

Ms. Ephron likes to take cliches, turn them upside down and wring out of them that initial truth they hide by being cliches, but without which they could never have survived.

When Tom Hanks' son learns that his father will be having sex, he asks if that means that a woman will be scratching his back and screaming. He has seen films on cable, which are as stylized as wrestling shows. The kid, without knowing it, defines what this film is not. ''Sleepless in Seattle'' is a love story in which the lovers never kiss. Not only is there no nudity, there is no nuzzling. They first join hands just in time for the last fadeout. But it is a love story of great emotional impact.

The cliche Ms. Ephron is exploring is the romantic belief that some people are ''made for each other,'' that they come together by magic. It is a formula for schmaltz that the director keeps sanitizing with ditsy humorous resistance to it on her heroine's part. Only women, it is said, believe such stuff. Only they weep over Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr in ''An Affair to Remember.''

But even the differences between the sexes are part of the magic. In a world becoming (we are told) unisex, Ms. Ephron thinks that men and women are still different, and she proves it on the laugh meter. Men and women were laughing at different parts of this film, and they were meant to. The men, for instance, guffawed the loudest when Mr. Hanks said that ''Fatal Attraction'' scared the [blank] out of him.

But both sexes were cheering the main characters as they moved to their fated meeting at the film's end. People groaned audibly when the elevators passed each other, and applauded when one elevator came back up.

The idea of magic in a marriage is not so crazy. Everything that preceded the meeting of man and woman will go into the marriage, and be seen in retrospect as contributing to it (or not). Spouses live with habits picked up in their separate childhoods, which become part of their shared life history. In fact, quirks picked up from parents get passed on to grandchildren, binding the generations in what feels (from within) like teleological process.

Lives blend and become one even in their unmarried ''prehistory.'' That is the romantic premise. It has no scientific standing. But in fact it occurs. I know the magic. I even know the magic's name. The name is Natalie. Thanks, Ms. Ephron, for reminding me.

Garry Wills is a syndicated columnist.

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