How Sleepless in Seattle (1993) Both Rejects and Celebrates the Rom-Com

If you were asked to name an iconic romantic comedy, it wouldn’t be a surprise if your answer was one of Nora Ephron’s offerings. The late writer and director is synonymous with the genre and, according to critics, “changed the way an entire generation fell in love” through her body of work. Perhaps the first film that springs to mind is When Harry Met Sally (1989), about whether men and women can ever be just friends, or You’ve Got Mail (1999), an early insight into the perils of online dating. Or maybe it’s Sleepless in Seattle. The 1993 flick starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan (who went on to star in You’ve Got Mail together) follows Sam (Hanks), a single parent struggling to move on after his wife’s death, and Annie (Ryan), who is happily engaged yet missing the ‘magic’ that she sees in the movies. When Sam’s son Jonah phones up a radio station and says his dad needs a new wife, Annie hears and becomes attached to a man she has never met. Ephron can be seen to have redefined the concept of the romantic comedy in her films, but perhaps Sleepless in Seattle, which she both wrote and directed, is of particular interest – a movie that takes from yet disputes the cinematic past.

Sleepless in Seattle contains many nods to more traditional romantic comedies, and the first example of this is within the opening credits. The sequence of stars and constellations, that seems to foreshadow the key themes of fate and destiny, is set to Jimmy Durante’s ‘As Time Goes By’, a song perhaps best known from the soundtrack of Casablanca. It arguably borrows from the screwball comedy, a subgenre popular in the 1930s and 40s, in the elements of farce and misunderstanding within the plot. What’s more, the fact that the two leads don’t actually meet properly until the final scene means there is practically no physical intimacy, therefore accidentally adhering to the Production Code that characterised the screwball genre – a somewhat refreshing throwback to classical Hollywood. 

In some ways, Sleepless in Seattle is a film about films. For example, it was partly inspired by the 1957 romance An Affair to Remember, which starred Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr. Its likeness is explicitly alluded to by the characters; when Sam tells his sister about Annie’s request to meet on Valentine’s Day, she is reminded of the classic film and proceeds to emotionally and somewhat comically summarise the romantic plot. However, Sam immediately rejects this comparison, dismissing it as a “chicks’ movie”. This is perhaps representative of how Ephron pushes against and even questions the legitimacy of well-established tropes from romcoms, exploring how these movies affect our perceptions and expectations of love. As friend Becky remarks to Annie, “you don’t wanna be in love, you wanna be in love in a movie”, highlighting that reality often differs greatly from the epic love stories we watch and swoon over on screen. 

The magic of destiny and of the very constellations that form the backdrop of the film is refuted by Annie in the opening scenes, as she protests to her mother that “destiny is something we’ve invented because we can’t stand the fact that everything that happens is accidental”. While Sam is seemingly more open to notions of true love, he believes he has had his one chance at romance and won’t find anyone as special as his late wife – he even evidences Fatal Attraction as a reason why he shouldn’t meet Annie, effectively a stranger to him at this point. The characters are self-aware and accept that real life isn’t like the movies, with a cynicism towards the budding relationship developing from afar… however, sometimes real life is like the movies.

Destiny takes a hand, and twists of fate throughout the film work against the reluctance of the two leads. When Annie leaves her parents’ house 10 minutes after her fiancé, she just happens to be driving on her own, listening to the radio, when Jonah first calls the station. Later, Sam and Annie spot one another at the airport and there is a brief yet instant attraction, even though they are each unaware who the other is. And of course, there’s the final scene: Jonah leaving his rucksack at the top of the Empire State Building means he and his father have to go back for it, leading to the couple finally meeting. Annie undoubtedly has agency within the film and has a hand in making the meeting happen (albeit with some problematic, stalkerish behaviour that definitely wouldn’t pass today!) but it is fate that ultimately brings the two leads together. In a Q&A with Rolling Stone, on the film’s release, Ephron remarked that “we’re trying to be smart, sophisticated and funny about movies like this, but we want to be one, too”, and despite the film largely diverging from the sentimentality of An Affair to Remember, the ending completely emulates the classic, unashamedly leaning into the themes it had previously rejected.

Almost 30 years on, Sleepless in Seattle is regarded as one of the all-time great romcoms. Ephron’s ability to push against what has come before yet simultaneously lean into its magic is a love letter to the romantic comedy genre and is what arguably makes the film timeless, even if some of the aesthetic elements become dated as the years pass. It was even celebrated in a romcom-centric episode of Apple TV+ hit Ted Lasso, with Annie’s iconic line “I have to go now” being spoken by character Roy Kent, when he finally realises his desire to return to his former football club. It seems that in her reinvention of the genre, Ephron has left a trail of cinematic moments to be interrogated and cherished by a new generation of romantics.

Erin Zammitt

Featured Image Source: Still via Youtube // Sleepless in Seattle (1993) Trailer #1 | Movieclips Classic Trailers

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