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‘Sleepless in Seattle’ (PG-13)

By Joe Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
June 25, 1993

TWO KEY SCENES in "Sleepless in Seattle": Annie (Meg Ryan) and her best pal Becky (Rosie O'Donnell) are munching popcorn and watching an old movie ("An Affair to Remember," with Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr, to be exact), salting their popcorn with tears and lip-syncing to Kerr's every melodramatic line.

"Men never get this movie," O'Donnell observes.

Later, another woman describes in loving detail the plot of the same movie to Sam (Tom Hanks) and her husband, her eyes welling well before she gets to the romantic payoff.

"That's a chick's movie," grumbles Hanks.

And that's the commercial wisdom at the gooey heart of "Sleepless in Seattle," which looks likely to be the "Jurassic Park" of date movies -- this romantic comedy tested so well with female audiences it was moved up from autumn to summer release. It's the only thing that can separate the women from the men-and-boys summer blockbusters.

This is mighty familiar stuff -- "Sleepless" might just as well be called "The Courtship of Jonah's Father." Or "When Sam Finally Met Annie." But in this case, familiarity breeds content -- "Sleepless" has the feel of a readymade classic, an old-fashioned kind of movie designed to be watched again and again.

Chicago architect Sam and his 8-year-old son, Jonah, have lost their wife and mother to cancer. Devastated, they move to Seattle to escape memories and start a new life.

Across the continent, at a family Christmas Eve dinner in Baltimore, Annie announces her engagement to her pleasant but colorless, allergic-to-everything boyfriend Walter (Bill Pullman). Driving to visit Walter's parents in D.C., Annie tunes in her car radio and is spellbound by what she hears -- Jonah has phoned a radio shrink to beg for help for his sad dad. The talk show host asks to speak to Sam, who reluctantly pours his heart out all over the airwaves.

Next day, 2,000 women call the station asking for Sam's phone number. And Annie, about to become permanently mired in a fireworks-free relationship, can't seem to get this perfect stranger out of her mind.

The rest of the movie is just a matter of time, as Sam and Annie ride separate tracks that had better meet or there'll be a riot in the theater. In between there's lots of mushy stuff about omens and destiny and made-for-each-other magic.

Hanks gets the best lines, setting off his sassy wit with sweetness and vulnerability. Ryan's Annie, who we're told is a writer for the Baltimore Sun, is patently dippy and cute, but everyone around her is much better developed, particularly O'Donnell, whose sweet-tart persona really registers in the role of Becky, Annie's editor and best friend. The scene is stolen again and again by real live teddy bear Ross Malinger as wise child Jonah, who has no trouble going wisecrack-to-wisecrack with Hanks.

Director Nora Ephron co-wrote the script, and graces her second film with a sure ear for urban banter, an eye for lovely (if cliched) images and a solid grounding in Woody Allen's "relationship" movies. Ephron has also tagged the film with a can't-miss soundtrack of sentimental oldies, featuring Jimmy Durante, Ray Charles and Nat "King" Cole.

At one point, Annie jokes about the knee-jerk emotional response to saccharine phone company commercials, but "Sleepless in Seattle" is designed to do exactly the same thing, producing an automatic smiling-through-the-tears response. There are no surprises in "Sleepless," and the audience is ahead of the characters every step of the way. But people seem to like it that way. And, hey, it works like a charm: A quick check of the exiting audience found many smiling -- and still clutching tissues.

SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE (PG-13) -- Area theaters.

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