While we’ve spent the past couple of weeks “celebrating” the birthdays of films with dubious honor (though if you are a genuine fan of stuff like From Justin to Kelly and Dumb and Dumberer, that’s cool and we respect your dedication to using less traditional means of tastemaking to pick your faves), it’s important to remember that there are still plenty of good movies with looming anniversaries that are worth actually honoring. You’d like an example now, right? How about the late, great Nora Ephron’s Sleepless in Seattle, which turns twenty years old today? (Also, yes, we’re all really old right now.)
The film was the second on-screen pairing of stars Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan (their first was 1990’s Joe Versus the Volcano, a wonderfully weird rom-com if there ever was one) and their first outing with Ephron (she’d direct them five years later in their last pairing, You’ve Got Mail). It has the sort of dated plotline that sounded weird even when it was released in 1993 – really, what sort of people were still calling into sadsack telephone chat shows? – but its primary inspiration, drawn from 1957’s An Affair to Remember, is oddly timeless. As a story about other people, Sleepless in Seattle is inherently romantic and infinitely watchable, though it’s the type of thing that, if it happened in “real life,” would sound weird and basically hopeless. Ah, hopelessness, the true currency of all romantic comedies.
Need a Sleepless in Seattle refresher? Luckily for you, it’s dead simple. Tom Hanks plays Sam Baldwin, a newly widowed father of one who has recently moved from Chicago to Seattle with his young son Jonah (played adorably by Ross Malinger). The Baldwin men are sad. It’s totally understandable. Months later (on Christmas Eve, no less, ugh, how wrenching can this get?), young Jonah calls into a radio chat show to talk about how much he misses his mom and how much he wants a new wife for his dad. The response is pretty epic, as apparently a lot of equally-as-sad women were listening to the show too and now totally want on Sam’s jock. One of those women? Annie Reed (Ryan), a Baltimore reporter who is bored with her life. It’s totally understandable (she’s engaged to a dude named Walter, come on, though Walter is played by Bill Pullman). Through a series of only-in-film machinations, Annie is inspired by An Affair to Remember, pens Sam a letter asking him to meet her on the top of the Empire State Building on Valentine’s Day, and finds the letter accidentally mailed to the Baldwins. Jonah loves it (like most kids, he is especially taken with Annie’s appreciation of baseball), but an overwhelmed Sam still wants to find love the old-fashioned way. Will the two ever meet? Will love find a way? Will Ephron somehow find a sweet way to combine Annie’s letter with Sam’s desire to randomly meet the next love of his life? Duh.
What I’ve come to appreciate in the twenty years that Sleepless in Seattle has existed is what I’ve come to appreciate about most of Ephron’s work. In short, there are actual stakes in the film, the kind you can only truly recognize as you (and, conversely, it) grow older. And, no, not just romantic stakes involving Sam and Annie (though the film’s tagline “What if someone you never met, someone you never saw, someone you never knew was the only someone for you?” sure makes that whole thing sound pretty damn important), but whole life stakes when it comes to young Jonah. Malinger’s character has already been through plenty – we’re basically on year two of Jonah’s mom-death-induced depression when the action kicks up in the film – and it’s hard to imagine that another major upheaval in his life centered around a female figure won’t ruin him forever. That’s a stake. That’s something real. And that’s not something we get from the vast majority of romantic comedies being made today. Sure, these films might build in extra drama (weirdly, the first film I thought about while writing this was the Kate Hudson-starring Raising Helen, but even that orphan-y delight doesn’t feel as wrenchingly real as anything involving Jonah Baldwin), but it never feels essential to the entire endeavor, it’s just window dressing.
Simply put, what makes Sleepless in Seattle great (though often far more dramatic than comedic) is that it makes its audience care about more than just the central romantic relationship. That’s why it’s a classic, dated use of the telephone and all (obviously, if the film was remade today, it would involve the Internet and Vine and Tumblr or something).
Sleepless in Seattle is not my favorite of Ephron’s films, however, as I remain embarrassingly partial to You’ve Got Mail of all things, and I still find When Harry Met Sally the most relatable and accessible of her works, but it has special charms of its own. Darling little kid issues aside, it’s hard to deny the strange allure of a romantic comedy that truly doesn’t put its leads together until the very, very end, to the point that their total time on screen together clocks in at around just two minutes. (And, circling back, such separation also adds immeasurably to the importance of the Sam and Jonah relationship, the real romance of the film.)
Despite its relative recognizability – probably thanks to its undeniably perfect rom-com title – Sleepless in Seattle isn’t Ephron’s highest-rated film in terms of the ol’ Rotten Tomatoes listing (at 71% Fresh, it’s tied with My Blue Heaven, is below both When Harry Met Sally and Julie & Julia, and is above You’ve Got Mail and Heartburn). At IMDb, it has a 6.7 out of 10 star rating, which is the star equivalent of a warm head nod. But the film did make a very respectable $277M at the box office, and Box Office Mojo lists an even more respectable listing of moneymaking accolades for the project, including its fifth place rank (domestic) amongst all films released in 1993 (it was number eight worldwide), its distinction as being the number one PG-rated film of that same year, and (weirdly enough) its demarcation as being the number one “New Year’s” themed film of all-time (When Harry Met Sally is actually number two). The film was also Ephron’s highest-grossing project (even when inflation is brought into the equation), and it’s the number 16 earner of all romantic comedies (course My Big Fat Greek Wedding is tops, but did you also know that What Women Want is number two and Hitch is number three? What a strange genre). It is both a prime example of some of the best of Ephron and some of the best of the genre.
And it’s also twenty years old and will probably get remade within the year (yes, using the Internet and Vine and Tumblr and stuff). Hey, happy birthday, Sleepless in Seattle.