“You don’t wanna be in love. You wanna be in love in a movie.” Nora Ephron wrote that line. And put it in a movie. The fact that Rosie O’Donnell—as confidante and close friend Becky in 1993’s Sleepless in Seattle, released this month on Netflix—can bark that line at a misty-eyed Meg Ryan without setting off alarm bells of scriptwriting self-consciousness is, perhaps, impressive. In the world of Sleepless there’s a lot of talk (period) and a lot of talk of romance in particular: degrees, gradations, how do you know, and how do you know you know. This chattiness is largely due to the film’s central plot conceit: it’s a love story where boy doesn’t meet girl until the final frames. Time that would be filled by first dates and lovers’ quarrels is, in Sleepless, mainly devoted to wondering.
When Baltimore journalist Annie Reed (Ryan) hears lonesome widower Sam Baldwin (Tom Hanks) on a call-in radio show, she can’t shake a hunch they’re made for each other. Annie follows this hunch across the country, all the way back, and eventually one hundred floors up the Empire State Building, but her confidence in her plan waxes and wanes. In many ways, the central dramatic action of Sleepless in Seattle is the tug-of-war taking place in Annie’s head, making Ephron’s film a genre movie in more ways than one. It’s not just a rom-com—where boy meets girl—it’s a non-rom com, where doubt slowly meets belief.
Doubt has always been a friend to the romance writer—an appealingly relatable obstacle when war, plague, or famine seem far-fetched. A staple of the non-rom com subgenre is a requisite amount of “not I!” protests near the beginning (“love is dead,” “love like that only happens in movies,” take your pick). Such protests often reference the conventions of the genre in order initially to reject them. Sleepless is no exception: it’s a love story about people obsessed with love stories. The film practically gets its scaffolding—or at any rate, a good deal of mileage—from the Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr romance An Affair to Remember. In front of her umpteenth viewing of the 1957 tearjerker, Annie wails to Becky: “Those were the days when people knew how to be in love. They knew it! Time, distance, nothing could separate them because they knew it was right, it was real!”
Annie’s inability to “know” is how Ephron gives her heroine distance from the grander, sweeping passions of the so-called “movies.” Annie isn’t quite sure she should fly across the country to pursue pipe dreams of a man she’s never met, and these momentary misgivings are meant to make her seem grounded and real. That she absolutely will wind-up following little more than an instinct from East Coast to West is a given of the genre, but the fun is in watching her get there. The non-rom is not about taking the leap, but the breaking down of defenses necessary in order to take it.
Casting a wry, sidelong glance at her subjects’ neuroses was one of Ephron’s best tricks, like his real money pokies nz adventure earlier. But what really made her queen of the non-rom was an ability to balance dry wit with real warmth, and her scripts are at their best when serving both simultaneously. Early in Sleepless, Sam says to a mirage of his late wife “I miss you so much it hurts.” The emotion is too unabashed; it reads as cliché. Yet when Annie, mid-quest, calls Becky from Seattle to ask: “Is this crazy?” and Becky responds “No. That’s the weirdest part about it,” the sudden switch to earnestness takes us by surprise. It’s hard not to feel a little stirred.
The film never fully slips from self-reference into sincerity until its very end, set atop the Empire State Building. This time it is Ryan’s sidelong glances—not Ephron’s—that save us from schmaltz. Annie and Sam exchange roughly eight words before he offers her his hand and, we’re meant to presume, his love. Annie accepts. But as the camera follows the couple off the roof and into the elevator, it captures all the embarrassed looks crossing Ryan’s face. In this way even the most outsized romantic gesture is given a little bumpy human texture. To be in love, Ryan’s face tells us, is both glorious and goofy.
To be in love in a movie, anyway.
a stellar example of the non-rom com, if a little slow and schmaltzy in places