Sleepless in Seattle somehow still works despite a fundamental flaw in its script: The characters spend almost no time together! They meet in the last scene of the movie. Much of the fun of a romcom is experiencing the chemistry — the swoon — between the leads; and we know from both Joe Versus the Volcano and You’ve Got Mail that Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan have amazing chemistry. Why build a movie around them falling in love only to get, like, 2 minutes of them onscreen together?
Despite that structural handicap, and a few other annoyances, Sleepless in Seattle still cobbles together into something delightful. Writer and director Nora Ephron, whose breakout came just a few years earlier as the writer of When Harry Met Sally…, has both an eye and an ear for pining romance. She constructs a magnetic pull between two separated characters so strong it gives you the goosebumps.
It doesn’t hurt when your leads are two juggernauts of All-American charm: Hanks, playing a big-hearted widowed dad trying to rekindle love; Ryan, a slightly obsessive reporter afraid of settling for less than The One (though can you really call prime Bill Pullman “settling”?). Both can steal your heart with a single longing glance or aching line delivery; both are so good that they manage to constantly build the tension for their inevitable rooftop meeting.
The comedy is hit-or-miss for me: There’s way too much “men-Mars-women-Venus” jokes, and that that little kid sure is annoying. But the supporting cast is strong throughout, and there’s a fun cadence to the dialogue. Rita Wilson’s monologue about An Affair to Remember is a hall-of-famer for me, in particular.
Ephron is better known as a writer, but she acquits herself decently well as the director. She gets out of the way of the actors and gives the film a pleasing, steady rhythm. The climactic scene at the Empire State Building has an appropriate air of drama and culmination to it. On the other hand, as both the writer and director, it amplifies her tics, and sitcom jokey-ness occasionally takes over for a scene or two at a time.
So Sleepless in Seattle still definitely worth a watch. It’s not hard to see why it’s such an enduring hit, even if parts of it are a time capsule. I laughed and I cheered. But I will never quite get over Hanks and Ryan being pulled apart for all but the last scene.
- Review Project: Tom Hanks Retrospective