Sleepless in Seattle

Chalk up summer '93 as make-out time at the movies. Whoopi Goldberg and Ted Danson do it in Made in America. Tom Cruise sneaks out on his wife (Jeanne Tripplehorn) to do it with Karina Lombard on the beach in The Firm. Even the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park do it, though they're all supposed to be female and the film is rated PG-13.

Right now, you can find a date movie for every taste and age group. The kids can learn G-rated technique as the Prince awakens his love with a kiss in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. And the kinky crowd can learn new tricks as Billy Baldwin shoves it to Sharon Stone from behind — and standing up yet — in Sliver.

If date movies are back, you can blame the box office. Indecent Proposal soared past $100 million, the blockbuster mark, and Mexico's erotic Like Water for Chocolate is a smash on the art-house circuit. Even the dopey Benny and Joon and Untamed Heart made money. If there's a downside to the date-movie frenzy, you hear it mostly from guys without dates, guys who bemoan the return of that dreaded genre the tear-jerker. Maybe all they need is to see one done right.

The sublime Sleepless in Seattle provides the chance. It's easily the hippest, frankest and funniest date movie around. The film's lovers — Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan — not only don't do it; they don't even get introduced until the final scene. It's the Nineties, the decade of sex as terror and tease. That fact is not lost on director Nora Ephron (This Is My Life), who wrote the incisive script with David S. Ward and Jeff Arch. Ephron homes in on what's been missing in movies and in life: ardor, longing and smart talk about the screwed-up notions that pass for love. Ephron may be working in a minor key, but she's a major talent with a wicked gift for tickling the funny bone, exposing hidden truths and then, just when you're not looking, slamming you in the solar plexus.

Sam Baldwin (Hanks) gets slammed hard. When his wife dies of cancer, Sam, an architect, leaves Chicago for Seattle, where he hopes he and his nine-year-old son, Jonah (the remarkable Ross Malinger), won't be stung as often by memories. Eighteen months later and 2700 miles away, Annie Reed (Ryan), a reporter for the Baltimore Sun, hears Sam on her car radio. Jonah has phoned a call-in shrink to ask advice about his lonely, insomniac dad. Sam reluctantly tells of how he had it perfect for a while with a wife who "made everything beautiful, like . . ."

"Magic," says Annie, finishing Sam's sentence alone in her car. It's the beginning of a bond that will form between her and the man known as Sleepless in Seattle. In his best work since Big, Hanks gives a classic romantic-comedy performance, investing the role with sweetness, humor and genuine gravity. Hanks is sensational, but he would have been less so without Ryan, who reacts to Sam's words with a vulnerability that breaks down the cynicism in Annie and the audience; she is wonderfully endearing. Magic is what Annie doesn't have with her allergy-prone fiancT, Walter (Bill Pullman). She feels a bond with Sam, but so do the hordes of women who call the station to find him.

Annie is more devious. She gets her editor, Becky (sassy Rosie O'Donnell), to assign her a story on Mr. Sleepless. Becky is as much a victim of romance as Annie. They well up at An Affair to Remember, the 1957 weepie in which Deborah Kerr is crippled by a taxi on her way to meet Cary Grant on top of the Empire State Building. "Men never get this movie," says Becky.

Sam later mocks Affair as "a chick's movie," but his false bravado is exposed when his pal Jay (Rob Reiner in a howl of a cameo) instructs him in such new dating twists as condoms and tiramis�·. Sam's a wreck before his first date with Victoria (Barbara Garrick). So is Jonah, who worries Victoria will "scratch up" his dad's back during sex. Blame it on the movies again. Jonah's friend Jessica (a hilarious Gaby Hoffmann) has cable TV.

Ephron knows Hollywood inspires and fucks up our romantic lives. When Sam and Annie finally get together at the Empire State Building, Ephron and master cinematographer Sven Nykvist turn it into a movie junkie's paradise. You don't have to know An Affair to Remember to join the fun. Just think of any movie scene that pushes your emotional buttons. For me it's Robert Redford and Barbra Streisand in The Way We Were. Others may go back to Bogie and Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca or zip ahead, God forbid, to Whitney Houston warbling to Kevin Costner in The Bodyguard. Name your shame. Ephron tweaks them all without for a second denying their potency. In Sleepless, she breaks your heart without making you feel like a jerk. As date movies go, that's the ultimate in compliments.

From The Archives Issue 404: September 15, 1983