For nearly three decades, Sleepless in Seattle has moldered in a tiny box, somewhere in the attic of my mind. I rented it on VHS, watched it once, and sent it into exile, along with other knick knacks of 90s pop culture. Since then, I’ve only thought of it sparingly, and even then as more of an artifact than actual movie. You probably remember a lot of the same snippets I do: That famous poster, where Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan stare dreamily at their disparate skylines, or the moment when he shares his tragedy for a radio broadcast, only to have his sadness fill her eyes with tears. For the remainder of the film, America’s Sweethearts slowly drift into each other’s orbit. It was a wondrous bit of disposable magic. So, I watched it once and filed it away.
That makes this review a fascinating experiment: I’m not just rewatching a movie I haven’t seen since junior high. No, we’re unearthing a time capsule, or a cinematic fly encased in amber. The world has changed, I’m all grown up, and Sleepless in Seattle is now a completely different movie. Unfortunately, much like avocado shag carpeting and billowing Hammerpants, this syrupy rom-com just doesn’t age well. But before we cover Seattle‘s narrative wear and tear, let’s review the plot for anyone who’s forgotten.
The film opens on a grim note: Sam Baldwin (Hanks), a thirty-something architect, has just buried his soulmate (Carey Lowell). With his opening dialogue, Sam must explain his wife’s death to Jonah (Ross Malinger), their precocious eight-year-old son. The film charts a very realistic path for Sam’s grief, as he navigates between anger, sorrow, and deep confusion. Ultimately, everything in his native Chicago reminds him of her, so Sam decides to uproot and cultivate new memories elsewhere.
Cut to eighteen months later, and Sam’s spiritual healing is still a slow process. He and Jonah have relocated to the Seattle waterfront, but Sam spends his evenings on the deck, moping his darkness. Jonah becomes alarmed enough to phone a shrink’s all-night radio show. He tells her that Sam hasn’t moved on from his wife’s death; his grieving is no longer healthy. He doesn’t even sleep. Maybe a new wife is the new answer?
The doctor asks for Sam on the phone. Reluctantly, Sam picks up the receiver and slowly spills his guts. We learn that what Sam and his wife had was something mystical and wondrous, and moving on means closing the spellbook on something that was once written in the stars. As you might guess, millions of listeners find themselves moved by Sam’s genuinely romantic plight.
This includes Annie (Ryan), a plucky reporter from Baltimore. She’s long convinced herself that things like kismet and cosmic connections are pure fiction. All life can be reduced to mere coincidence. But here is Sam, living proof that true love not only exists, but is driven by forces beyond our comprehension. Annie weeps to Sam’s broadcast, not just on account of his bone-deep grief, but also because his memories serve as an example of everything she doesn’t have. You see, Annie is engaged to Walter (Bill Pullman), a goob-tastic businessman who spends much of the movie wiping his nose and announcing all of his food allergies. Walter seems like a perfectly nice man, and his feelings for Annie appear very real. Still, what they have isn’t the aching love that Sam speaks of. Annie doesn’t feel the thunderbolt from above.
That famous movie poster pretty much tells you what happens next: Annie goes on a quest to meet Sam and determine whether they might share a greater destiny. Strangely enough, it’s here the story turns from wine to vinegar. For this cosmic meet cute to happen, Annie has to resort to a few things that are ethically shaky, or even downright villainous. She uses her journalistic connections to stalk Sam, even learning personal info about his son and late wife in the process. From here, Annie ups the ante by hiring a private investigator to tail Sam and snap pics as he goes about his day. For the topper, she ventures to his actual house, peeking into his windows and spying on him from a distance.
Swap the genders of these protagonists, and this becomes a very different movie. Imagine Sam stalking Annie and wading into her life, all so he can pop up under false pretenses. This no longer a cutesy rom-com. This is a true crime thriller.
Of course, this is 1993. Meg Ryan is everybody’s All-American actress. Tom Hanks is, um…well, he’s Tom Hanks. We’re gonna root for these two by default. This rewatch reminded me of My Best Friend’s Wedding, another syrupy rom-dramedy from the 90s. That film had Julia Roberts trying to bust up her best friend’s relationship. She may’ve been the protagonist, but Julia’s character did some terribly bitchy things to get what she wanted. I found myself hoping she didn’t get the guy in the end.
This film is actually much the same. By Seattle‘s midpoint, Sam is starting to date again, and even shows glimmers of new happiness. He’s growing and moving on, albeit in a slow, healthy way. Writer-director Nora Ephron (who would reunite Hanks and Ryan in You’ve Got Mail) scores big points for the sensitive way it depicts Sam coping with the loss of a spouse. Naturally, Hanks also connects as the lonely young widower. For all its massive success Sleepless in Seattle enjoyed, I suspect there’s potential for deeper romance and more moving drama burned beneath all the schmaltz.
In fact, this film suffers as much as any “classic” that I’ve ever seen. Somewhere between ’93 and now, Seattle probably lost a full star on this rating. Is it me? I don’t think so; if anything, I’ve become more of a mushy goofball over the years. Rom-coms have moved squarely into my wheelhouse. Still, Annie bothered me on this go-around. Her good intentions can’t excuse her morally questionable actions. Sam and Jonah deserve better than her scheming and sins of omission. As for me, I’ll go ahead and load this film back in the cinematic attic, where it belongs.
104 min. PG-13. Amazon Prime.