Coincidence. Fate. Destiny. Chance. Luck. Magic. Since filmmakers first combined romantic storylines with affectionately comedic renderings, these forces of serendipity have become genre staples; however the efforts of one writer/director saw them become defining elements of amorous offerings over the past two decades.
The film was Sleepless in Seattle, and the figure, its creator Nora Ephron. In a 105-minute stint of sweetness, smarts and unashamed sentimentality, the two redefined the very essence of rom-coms, crafting a winning template for all that followed. Alas, few movies since have been able to mimic its wisdom and warmth, nor celebrate love and life in such a frank and funny fashion. Indeed, almost twenty years after first appearing in cinemas, it remains the benchmark of the genre, charming audiences whilst transcending contrivance and cliché.
Of course, formula is present in the script from Ephron (Silkwood) and co-scribes David S. Ward (The Sting) and Jeff Arch (Iron Will) based on the latter’s story, yet it is acknowledged, embraced, championed and even called out. In a tale of two lonely souls on opposite coasts of the North American continent, the cheesy, schmaltzy aspects are both campaigned for (the recognised, recurrent mirroring of 1957 classic An Affair to Remember) and questioned (the characters respective insistence upon and resistance to signs of their inevitable pairing), in a rare instance of on-screen awareness of the familiar features – and reputation – of romantic comedies.
Marking Ephron’s second directorial effort after 1992’s This Is My Life, as well as her return to the genre that catapulted her to fame courtesy of 1989’s When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle starts with sadness. At the funeral of his wife Maggie (Carey Lowell, Licence to Kill), Chicago architect Sam Baldwin (Tom Hanks, Turner & Hooch) consoles his young son Jonah (Ross Malinger, Kindergarten Cop), with his own grief immediately apparent. Unable to face staying in a city filled with reminders of their loss, he relocates to Seattle. When, after eighteen months, his demeanour hasn’t faltered, Jonah takes matters into his own hands.
The plight of Baltimore journalist Annie Reed (Meg Ryan, Prelude to a Kiss) couldn’t be more different, as she announces her engagement to allergy-prone Walter (Bill Pullman, Somersby) on Christmas Eve. Although nerves temper her excitement, she is brimming with enthusiasm, until a late night radio talkback show starts to change her perception. Whilst travelling from her parents to his after sharing such happy tidings, Annie happens upon a boy spreading the sad circumstances of his widower father over the national airwaves. Cynical at first, she soon becomes entranced by his wish for a new wife for his unhappy, unsleeping dad, as well as the reticent yet tender account of events from the man in question.
That the boy is Jonah and the man Sam is among the film’s many happy accidents, with the feature plotting the intersection of their path with Annie’s. Annoyed by the sudden attention, Sam soon sees the situation as a chance to start dating again, whilst Annie can’t shake his story from her mind. Searching for details of his life, writing him a letter she doesn’t intend to send, and travelling across the country on the pretence of a writing assignment only further her innocent obsession. Then Annie receives a response to her earnest message – posted by her best friend Becky (Rosie O’Donnell, A League of Their Own) without her knowledge – that sends the trio scrambling towards New York’s Empire State building.
Along the way, commonalities, convenience, mystic forces and near misses prolong the star-crossed relationship, which exists for much of the movie in the minds of Annie and Jonah. She is uncertain if she should be feeling this way about a man she’s never met whilst on the cusp of marrying another, he is certain that the writer of such honest, heartfelt words should be his dad’s new wife and his new mother. Only Sam proves a stumbling block, embodying the film’s own cognisance of so-called “chick flick” conventions. Yet despite his dismissal of the many obvious elements conspiring to put them together, he – eventually, unwittingly – becomes caught up in the romantic fervour.
Indeed, his reluctance provides an entry point for all those usually unfussed by the genre, in an ingenious move by Ephron and her collaborators. Whilst events unfold under a starry evening sky (as emphasised by the frequent placement of twinkling lights), swooning crooners sing of love (including such classics as “As Time Goes By”, “When I Fall in Love” and “Make Someone Happy”), and inexplicable actions thrust the central duo towards each other, Sam probes and ponders not only his position in the narrative, but the entire concept constructed around him.
Accordingly, Sleepless in Seattle offers Ephron the opportunity to prove her prolonged skill with rom-com content. In her sophomore effort, she assembles the expected soft aesthetic flourishes and fanciful fairy-tale narrative, yet delivers both without insulting the intelligence of her audience. Even whilst including the usual characters (cute kids, depressed singles and indecisive brides-to-be among them), through clever dialogue and amusing altercations she ensures they overcome the constraints of inane stereotypes. The Oscar, BAFTA and Writer’s Guild award nominations for best original screenplay that followed, as well as her continued success with subsequent similar fare (including 1998’s You’ve Got Mail and 2009’s Julie and Julia), demonstrate the extent of her influence and impact.
There’s a reason that an outpouring of emotion followed the news of Ephron’s passing on June 26, 2012, with her legacy within the confines of romantic comedies unparalleled. As the purveyor of melodious yet moving, heartfelt yet humorous, honest yet hopeful, and surprisingly bittersweet and subtle films of the rom-com variety – as typified by Sleepless in Seattle – she set the standard.