I was twelve when the popsicle stand finally blew. My parents were going their separate ways. As a child whose greatest accomplishment was beating Bowzer in Nintendo 64, I couldn’t imagine anything worse. What would that mean for me? And, more importantly, what did that say about love?
On instinct, I did what I’ve always done: I reverted into movies. I rage-swiped my Blockbuster card so many times that summer I had to have it replaced. Twice. I dove into all the classics: "Some Like It Hot", "Sabrina", "Annie Hall", "The Shop Around the Corner", "Singin’ in the Rain", "The Apartment", "Harold and Maude", and "Roman Holiday".
I couldn’t watch enough - I couldn’t stop. It was that summer, toeing the razor-thin line of adulthood and struggling to avoid prematurely dying alone, a hermit and misanthrope, that I discovered "Sleepless in Seattle".
I was spellbound when the credits rolled. It was unlike any other romantic comedy I had ever seen. Since then, I’ve seen the film at least a hundred times, and on its 25th anniversary, I thought I would explain what I learned from it that summer and how ‘Sleepless’ is still its own breed of rom-com.
Firstly, its structure is unique and unlike any other romantic comedy in the market.
The film opens with a funeral. Tom Hanks as Sam Baldwin is burying his wife. In an attempt at a fresh start, he moves to Seattle. He has resigned himself to never loving again – swooning over here – until his son calls into a ‘Loveline’-like radio show asking for advice on how to get his dad back in the dating game.
Across the country in Baltimore, Meg Ryan as Annie is newly engaged to Bill Pullman’s Walter. While driving alone, she tunes in as Sam details how he met his deceased wife. It’s love at first listen, like the cosmos are calling out to her, ushering her to her destiny.
Here, the film could have gone in a simple, straightforward trajectory. The two meet somehow. One withholds a secret from the other. They fight and break up, only to be drawn back together again.
It’s a formula used quite often, but not this time. The two storylines continue in separate though parallel universes, intersecting briefly when Annie attempts to meet Sam in Seattle, then not again until their fateful meet cute at the top of the Empire State Building on Valentine’s Day.
All in all, Annie and Sam share roughly two minutes of screen time the entire movie. Two. Minutes.
Traditionally, romantic leads spending ample time together is integral to the progression of the narrative. Luckily, Annie and Sam’s chemistry crosses through the blank space of scenes apart. The divergence from this cliché arrangement elevates the film since its sole focus isn’t getting them into bed together.
*Spoiler* they never even kiss!
The film wants more, expects more, says more about love and fate and destiny. It treasures these things and refuses to slap two good-looking people on screen just so we can watch them googly-eye and sloppy-smooch.
Though she’s in more scenes with him than she is with Sam, it is not magic between Annie and Walter. He’s too nice, too good, too boring. She wants Walter in all the ways we want a toaster: for its convenience and ease of use. A toaster is unwavering and dutiful, but it is limited. You can’t bake a cake or prepare meat or hard-boil an egg. Walter’s toaster can’t hold a candle to Sam’s fully stocked chef’s kitchen. I get it.
But this is reason number two ‘Sleepless’ is the best romantic comedy ever made: we find ourselves wanting the reject nearly as much as the lead.
The “other man” in a rom-com is, 99 percent of the time, plagued with some horrible character defect. He’s mean or selfish or self-indulgent.
He can’t hold a job or holds the attention of too many women or is so one-dimensional, he’s there as a name for promotional material. Walter is kind and smart and faithful. He is possibly the most lovable castoff in a rom-com ever.
In fact, many would argue Walter is the real catch here, and Annie is an idiot for letting him go. He visits her family on the holidays and is eager to please them by memorizing their names. He also, adorably, quotes the Lou Gehrig line from ‘Pride of the Yankees’. It goes over everyone’s head, but gosh darnit, if he’s not the cutest while he does it.
He was the one to, quite romantically, plan a Valentine’s Day trip to New York City for the two of them. With a stay at the Plaza Hotel, no less! He also suggested they go to Tiffany’s and pick out items for their wedding registry. If this isn’t the making of the best guy ever, then you really need to rethink your criteria.
Anyways, Annie, on a whim, travels to Seattle after using all of her journalistic integrity to stalk the crap out of Sam. This is pre-internet, so her resources are many phone calls, numerous dead-ends until a lead sticks, and, the pièce de résistance, a private detective she hires to follow Sam on a date.
Of all the reasons I love ‘Sleepless’ this may be the most poignant: the film does not try to rationalize Annie’s idealization of love, and it does not condemn her for it either.
It could be debated that she’s a twit for leaving Walter, but Annie isn’t crazy. It was drastic to fly across the country to find someone she heard on the radio, but she isn’t crazy. Hiring a private eye to shadow a complete stranger is definitely up there on the list of things you shouldn’t do regularly, but she isn’t crazy.
She isn’t crazy.
She isn’t crazy.
She isn’t crazy.
And the film never makes us think she is.
This is the role model we need for young, impressionable girls: a woman going after what she wants. To hell with social norms and expectations. To hell with getting married just because you said you would. To hell with settling.
Love is sticky and oftentimes impractical, and yes, it can make no sense. But if you don’t go for what you want, then what’s the point? If you don’t do something crazy in the name of love, perhaps you’ll never find what you’re looking for.
All this I learned from a movie.