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‘Sleepless in Seattle’ (PG)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
June 25, 1993

There are certain things that the characters in Nora Ephron's movies know how to do -- like peel an apple in one long twisting strip. Or whip up a mountain of spaghetti carbonara as a post-coital bedtime snack.

This isn't just a matter of style; this is how her brittle, smart, self-absorbed, irresistible neurotic people -- people like Sam and Annie (Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan), the would-be couple in her disarmingly funny new comedy "Sleepless in Seattle" -- define themselves. In this crowd, you can't just appreciate J.D. Salinger's writing, you have to be able to crack wise about his love life. The same goes for show tunes and food and old movies.

It's not just that her people are articulate and sophisticated; they are also endowed with a sense of personal theatricality. Her people are hopeless romantics. They've seen so many films and projected themselves into so many saloon ballads that they can't help casting themselves as the stars of their own private movies -- complete with a soundtrack of their favorite songs, some jokes, maybe even a few recipes. And writer-director Ephron loves all of it: These, her movies tell us, are a few of my favorite things.

We're all funny about the things we love, seeing virtues that are visible only to those who also love them. In "Sleepless," though, we're as stuck on these people as the director is, and it puts us in a receptive, forgiving mood. We fall -- and I think a lot of people will fall hard for this movie -- even though we know we shouldn't.

Actually, this is what the movie is about: Should we follow our hearts or our heads? Heed our passions or be sensible? For Sam, though, these questions are moot. His adored wife, Maggie (Carey Lowell), has just recently died of cancer, and since then his expectations of life have fallen off a cliff. He and his Maggie were perfect together -- he knew it from the minute he first touched her hand. It was magic, he says. You don't get that lucky twice.

Annie, who works as a feature writer for the Baltimore Sun, doesn't believe in magic. That's just corny movie stuff. And so she is about to do the rational, reasonable thing -- marry Walter (Bill Pullman), a steady, unimposingly above-average guy who's crazy about her and wants nothing more than to make her happy.

At least that's what Annie keeps telling herself. Then, driving home one night, she tunes in to Dr. Marcia, a Sally Jessy Raphael-style radio shrink whose call-in guest is a little boy in Seattle named Jonah (Ross Malinger). Jonah is desperately worried about his dad, who seems down all the time and never sleeps. He thinks it's time his dad got a new wife.

The doctor is concerned too -- Dad sounds seriously depressed -- so she asks Jonah to put him on the phone. Dad obliges, and then, with thousands listening in, he talks, very simply, about his wife and how great she was and how much he misses her. It's a beautiful, sad, quietly emotional speech, and for the women in the radio audience -- Annie included -- it's like an arrow to the heart. This, they decide, is the dreamiest man on Earth.

It's Sam, of course, and immediately huge bags of mail appear on his doorstep -- addressed to "Sleepless" -- each stuffed with proposals of marriage from single women around the country. To the extent that Jonah will allow, Sam tries to ignore this outpouring of affection. But Annie can't ignore the buzz in her head. Sam's words have changed her. Maybe she's just crazy, maybe it's just prenuptial nerves, but she wants what Sam was talking about. Not Walter and stability, but magic.

Up till this point, it is easy to give in to Ephron's brimming romanticism, because, well, isn't this just what we used to love about old movies? And to guarantee we don't miss the parallels, Ephron and her co-writers, David S. Ward and Jeff Arch, make constant references to another movie, "An Affair to Remember," a weepie classic with Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr.

These quotations from one of the goopiest movies in history provide the perfect context for Ephron's examinations of modern love. "An Affair to Remember" is a "chick's movie" -- it's sappy and emotional in that "Reach Out and Touch Someone" way that's alien to the male of the species. But here's this guy, Sam, who talks the talk as well as any woman; who puts into words all that's missing in Annie's life.

And so, in a moment of madness, she writes him a letter (which her best friend, Becky, played sharply by Rosie O'Donnell, secretly mails). From here the course of true love does not run straight, but its complications do run true to romantic comedy form. And if Ryan and Hanks weren't so charmingly well-matched -- and if we hadn't already invested so much emotion in their getting together -- we might have turned impatiently against the film during the longish section where the strangers stumble toward one another.

As an actress, Ryan -- who, with this and her earlier role in "When Harry Met Sally . . .", has come to embody the Ephron woman (late model) -- seems to have crammed about 10 years of growth into the past four. Her wild-pony beauty is still there, and her sexy gawkiness, but as Annie she comes across as a much more mature, much more solid presence than she did earlier in her career. The same can be said for Hanks. Both actors seem to reach into themselves for a deeper connection with their characters than they've shown before. This, too, helps Ephron with an unfortunate tendency in her work, which is basically to make everyone in all her movies sound like the same person. (Namely, herself.)

This time, Ephron's characters are more like real people and less like machines for making one-liners. The movie seems to urge that we not settle for less but, instead, give in to romance and open our lives to chance encounters and magic. You don't have to be a woman to embrace these ideals, but then again, it wouldn't hurt if you were Cary Grant.

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