In the yuppie romance Sleepless in Seattle, Sam Baldwin (Tom Hanks), a lonely single dad still struggling to get over the death of his wife, takes his first, awkward steps toward a social life by going out on a date. The woman he’s meeting is friendly, pleasant-looking, and very attracted to Sam. She’s also totally wrong for him: We can tell because of the strenuous way she breaks into giggles at his tiniest jokes. Her laughter is loud and cackling, and it goes on painfully long — it’s the sound of someone killing herself to be ingratiating. The trouble is, it isn’t just the character who pushes that hideous laugh into our faces. It’s the movie, which all but pummels us into noticing how obnoxious she is.
What can you say about a contemporary love story that opens with the daringly original soundtrack choice ”As Time Goes By”? Directed and cowritten by Nora Ephron, who wrote When Harry Met Sally and made her behind-the-camera debut with last year’s This Is My Life, Sleepless in Seattle is bound to be hailed in some quarters as corny, romantic, and old-fashioned, and for good reason: The movie is so prefab, so plastically aware of being ”corny,” ”romantic,” and ”old-fashioned,” that it feels programmed to make you fall in love with it. It would seem that Nora Ephron thinks in clichés: She mixes old ones from Hollywood with new ones from pop-psych therapy. When Harry Met Sally… was like one of Woody Allen’s urban valentines turned into a TV series, and Sleepless lacks even that movie’s intense peppering of jokes — it’s like a ’50s tearjerker synthesized by microchip. What Ephron misses about the classic romantic weepers is their delicately sexy sparkle. She gets the corn (or an abstract approximation of it) without the smolder.
Sleepless in Seattle is about a couple of lonely hearts living on opposite sides of the country. Tom Hanks’ Sam and Meg Ryan’s Annie meet — in spirit, at least — on the radio. Annie, a newspaper reporter in Baltimore, is driving back from her family’s home one Christmas when she tunes in to a call-in talk show and hears Sam, a Seattle architect, going on in a sad, quiet voice about how much he loved his wife, and how badly he misses her. Something in that voice moves Annie. She has never known a passion that deep, certainly not with her fianceé, a dullard named Walter (Bill Pullman). And so, tentatively at first, then with greater urgency, she tries to meet Sam. So do a lot of other women (his radio segment elicits thousands of letters). It is one of the least appealing aspects of Sleepless in Seattle that even as Sam’s plaintive romanticism is supposed to have touched Annie in a tender and personal way, it also marks him in the film’s eyes as an official Great Catch. And what makes Annie right for Sam? As played by the blankly enthusiastic Meg Ryan, she’s nice, and well, that’s all she is. Annie is essentially defined by the fact that she needs a man like Sam. In Sleepless in Seattle, Ephron is less a filmmaker than a matchmaker.
Hanks, who has mostly played jocular wise guys, reveals a surprising gentleness here. A kind and thoughtful man, Sam dotes on his mischievous son (Ross Malinger), but he’s stuck in depression because he’s convinced he’ll never love anyone the way he loved his wife. Hanks’ performance anchors the picture, giving it a touch of heart; we can’t help but want to see this guy mended. Can anyone believe it, though, when Sam sees Annie staring at him in the street and he looks back dazed, as if he knew, just knew, that there was something special about her? (Mostly, it looks as if Sam had read the script.) I realize that Ephron is trying for something whimsically farfetched — for ”magic” — but when these two finally hook up at the Empire State Building, living out the meeting Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr never got to have in An Affair to Remember, the willed enchantment of it all is jaw-dropping. Don’t get me wrong: I have no objection to shamelessly corny love stories that make you well up with tearful joy. I just don’t like it when the movie does the welling up for you. C