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Saturday, January 30, 2010

Sleepless in Seattle

My 15 year old daughter watched Sleepless in Seattle for the first time the other day, so I found myself seeing it through her eyes, then trying to figure out what makes this movie so effective. It's hard to avoid the conclusion that Nora Ephron, who directed and co-wrote, is a master manipulator.

Having Tom Hanks be a still grieving widower was a smart move. When young love is not cut off by premature death (as in Romeo and Juliet, or here) its purity and intensity can never last. Hanks and his wife would probably have ended up arguing about money, or having affairs, and the marriage would have either ended or descended into petty squabbling the way real marriages do. But Hanks' wife has died before any of this could happen, so the background image of everlasting love is established.

Imagine Hanks had been single because of a divorce. It's certainly harder to picture Meg Ryan dreamily falling in love with the disembodied voice on the radio had it been snarling about an ex-wife. ("The bitch just wouldn't listen, no matter how many times I told her to curb her spending!")

Hanks' son is an indispensable part of the setup, allowing Hanks to demonstrate his natural aptitude for fatherhood. He's at an age where he still pulls at the maternal heartstrings. He is the one who phones the radio show which elicits Hanks' on air tribute to his dead wife. And finally, the boy facilitates the eventual meeting of Hanks and Ryan.

Another clever plot device is having Meg Ryan feel foolish about being so romantic, but then ultimately be rewarded for her romanticism. The message conveyed is that not only is it natural to feel foolish about your feelings, it's okay to act upon them as well.

The two designated turkeys in the film are both calibrated perfectly. Meg Ryan's fiance, played by Bill Pullman, is actually as good-looking as Tom Hanks (neither is likely to inspire love at first sight). Pullman plays a nice guy, but his allergies and lame jokes immediately demote him from possible love interest to the-one-we-don't-want-Meg-to-end-up-with. (Note to guys: when wooing, quit with the lame jokes and just be real. Oh, and don't sneeze too much.) The one woman Hanks goes out with prior to meeting Ryan is also not unattractive, but is rendered noxious by her maniacal laugh. Naturally, neither Hanks nor Ryan is burdened with any such flaws.

I suspect that women like Meg Ryan in their movies because she's nonthreatening. She's very attractive, but in a pixieish way. She doesn't have aggressive cheekbones like Sharon Stone's, nor does she exude a throbbing sexuality the way Angelina Jolie does. But she still attracts men, and is therefore perfect for the role. (Imagine Angelina Jolie in the role: instead of hesitating in the street that day in Seattle, she would simply have crossed it and killed her perceived competition.)

What Ryan, an underrated actress, does best is express an inchoate, romantic longing. And she is very convincing at appearing to be trying to convince herself that she is really in love with her fiance even though she's not. (It must take a lot of guile for an actress to so skillfully portray guilelessness.)

The movie within a movie aspect -- all the references to "An Affair to Remember" -- wouldn't have worked without the contrast between the two sets of lovers. Hanks and Ryan are far more down-to-earth than Deborah Kerr and Cary Grant, who epitomized mid-twentieth century Hollywood glamor. It's hard to imagine Kerr, one of the great beauties of screendom, chowing down on the popcorn with Rosie O'Donnell as the two of them cry over a corny old movie. Likewise, it's near impossible to imagine Grant dressed in a sweatshirt and jeans and tossing a football with his son.

Ephron has very cleverly scrubbed the movie clean of almost all references to sex. This is a movie about two kindred soulmates finally finding each other, not about two healthy beasts who just want to rut. Two early references to sex are purposely unappealing. At one point we see Ryan waking up in the middle of the night with Bill Pullman next to her in bed. But he's been neutered so effectively that one can't imagine they just had coitus. And at one point a frustrated Hanks announces that he is going to get laid. But his prospective date, the laugher, is so unappealing that we root for him not to. (Please, wait for Meg!!)

Whoever chose the soundtrack -- I'll assume Ephron -- knew which paeans to love would work best: Jimmy Durante's "As Time Goes By," Louis Armstrong's "A Kiss to Build a Dream on," Nat King Cole's "Stardust," Harry Connick Jr.'s "A Wink and a Smile," and other standards. (A hip-hop soundtrack with a driving rhythm but no melody featuring lyrics about bitches and ho's might not have established quite the same romantic mood.)

The near misses, when Hanks and Ryan almost meet but don't quite, are great at heightening our anticipation. By the end of movie, we're so desperately rooting for them to meet they don't really have to do anything than just look into each other's eyes (Hanks' gaze never strays to her breasts) to convince us that love everlasting is here again. They then hold hands and walk off, to the strains of Jimmy Durante's "Make Someone Happy." (Certainly a better choice than the Rolling Stones' "Under My Thumb.")

The only discordant note is the presence of Rosie O'Donnell. The movie was made in 1993, before O'Donnell's public personality had emerged full flower, so it's hard to fault Ephron for having cast her. But it's hard to see O'Donnell onscreen without thinking of all the ugly spats she's gotten into over the years. It also makes one realize -- this is a separate issue -- why Hollywood stars take such great pains to conceal their homosexuality: one can't help but look at the screen and think, hmm, how awkward that must be, pretending to be heterosexual.

Re-reading what I just wrote, I see that in trying to be analytical I've ended up making fun of the movie, which certainly hadn't been my intent. I am full of admiration for Nora Ephron for her artistry. It's just that I also recognize the craftsmanship behind the artistry.

Full disclosure: I was completely, totally manipulated myself, and still am whenever I watch the movie again.


Anonymous said...

Good post...loved the description of the movie and possible alternatives through your mind. I'm wondering...what did Beck think of it ?
Mad Dog

John Craig said...

Tom --
I'm sorry, just deleted my previous comment. For some reason it didn't occur to me you were talking about Rebecca. She liked the movie, and also agreed with my analysis.

Thank you re: the post.

Anonymous said...

Dad, you're such a fag for watching this movie. I watched it for five minutes once and could not change the channel fast enough.

John Craig said...

Guilty as charged.

Anonymous said...

John, I think you should silently enjoy the thought of your son, in the future aged 50+, furtively watching "Hello Dolly" and singing along to "Put on your Sunday Clothes". (Actually I think it won't even be furtive - so he can take s**t from his offspring.) In the meantime you can bond by comparing your thoughts on "Hurt Locker" vs. "Jarhead".

John Craig said...

Guy --
Thank you so much for that thought (and the opportunity to show your comment to him).

Steven said...

I was really taken in by you've got mail, also Hanks, Ryan and Erphron.