The middle film in the Ephron/Ryan trilogy that defined the romantic comedy from 1988 (When Harry Met Sally…) to 1998 (You’ve Got Mail), is back on the screen this week at the Central Cinema. Meg Ryan plays an affianced journalist (Bill Pullman is her Bellamy) who happens upon a late night talk show where she hears the sad story of recently widowed Tom Hanks and his precocious son. Instantly in love, Ryan struggles for most of the film with the weirdness of her feelings, ultimately leading to a meeting at the top of the Empire State Building.
The twin drivers of the film are geography and nostalgia. Ryan is in Baltimore, Hanks in Seattle (though he begins the film in Chicago, which from the warped perspective of Manhattan’s cultural logic is the mid-point between the East and West Coasts), the distance between them makes her heart grow fonder, just as the intangibility of Hanks’s internet persona made him more appealing in You’ve Got Mail. The romanticization of the past compounds the distancing effect. Not merely in the repeated viewings of An Affair to Remember which provide the meta-inspiration for our own film’s ending (and wow the less said about the condescendingly weepy way everyone in the film talks about that very fine Leo McCarey movie, as if the only way women can react to a movie is by sobbing incoherently, the better), but also the oldies-infused soundtrack which, like the retro Harry Connick Jr. score for When Harry Met Sally…, positions the film as somehow outside of time, as if the present moment is incapable of expressing the kind of romance we long for: the romance we grew up imagining in the media, the songs and movies of a baby-boomer youth. (You’ve Got Mail is similarly scored, outside of a shocking early burst of The Cranberries “Dreams” already a relic of the past in 1998, a reminder both of the early 90s and Wong Kar-wai’s 1994 Chungking Express, a film which manages to be both crushingly romantic and perennially contemporary.) It’s as if, in Ephron’s world, romance is an impossible thing. Her lovers must exist out of time and out of space. The fractured love story of Harry and Sally, spread across decades; Julie and Julia’s parallel stories bridging the present and the past through a book and a blog; Hanks and Ryan, either separated by a continent or just around the corner, are only able to really be ephemerally in love, on the internet, in the imagination.
As is their specialty, Hanks and Ryan bring a bland universality to the film, an all-American James Stewart and Jean Arthur without any of the edge or sexiness of those great stars of the past (though Ryan’s hair is fantastic – some of the best hair in film history). She fares much better than her co-stars in all three of her Ephron films, and if nothing else Tom Hanks is a more believable partner for her and her fabulous hair than Billy Crystal (though, honestly, the biggest problem with You’ve Got Mail is that no person in their right mind, not even Tom Hanks, would prefer Ryan to Parker Posey). For all the thematic importance of geographic separation in Sleepless in Seattle, the film is remarkably generic in its choice of locations. Ryan’s Baltimore could literally be anywhere, and Hanks’s Seattle appears to consist only of the Pike Place Market (it’s where he does his grocery shopping and also where he has lunch with Rob Reiner). I guess that’s in keeping with the romantic reductionism of the film’s view of New York, with the Empire State Building (all lit up like a Don’t Go Breaking My Heart skyscraper) the most obvious possible choice as the locus point for America’s impossible romantic longings.
Also: Gaby Hoffman is in this movie. Gaby Hoffman is in everything.
Sleepless in Seattle plays at the Central Cinema Friday February 6th through Tuesday, February 10th at 7:00 pm, with additional 3 pm shows on Saturday and Sunday. Note that the Monday show is in something called “Hecklevision.”