As evidenced by the masterful orchestration of "Pretty Woman," Disney revels in taking essentially dark material and giving it a heady spin. "While You Were Sleeping," a clear descendent of the Cornell Woolrich story "I Married a Dead Man," has all the trappings of a lighthearted romantic comedy.

As evidenced by the masterful orchestration of “Pretty Woman,” Disney revels in taking essentially dark material and giving it a heady spin. “While You Were Sleeping,” a clear descendent of the Cornell Woolrich story “I Married a Dead Man” (filmed earlier as “No Man of Her Own” in 1950 and “I Married a Shadow” in 1982), has all the trappings of a lighthearted romantic comedy. Woolrich’s tale involved a woman who took the identity of another who’d been killed on her way to meeting in-laws for the first time.

The new film’s complete embrace of love’s ability to break through all barriers is undeniably infectious. “Sleeping” definitely smells like a sleeper, with the potential for big box office returns. It should provide the comparable career boost for actress Sandra Bullock that Julia Roberts experienced with “Pretty.”

Lucy (Bullock) is alone and lonely in Chicago, working as a toll-taker for the Chicago Transit Authority. Her dreamboat is a handsome guy in a camel-hair coat who’s never so much as said hello. Nonetheless, she knows they will meet.

That momentous day arrives around Christmas, when on an otherwise quiet day she sees him jostled, mugged and pushed off the train platform. Jumping into action, she struggles to get the unconscious man out of the path of a speeding train, and succeeds.

What follows is much too complicated and illogical to explain. In its simplest reading, a series of misunderstandings result in Lucy’s being presented as the comatose man’s fiancee, as well as his savior. His loud, eccentric family thinks that’s just great. And, after some mild trepidation, so does Lucy.

The core of the Daniel Sullivan-Fredric Lebow screenplay is anything but frothy. Lucy is so desperate for affection, she’ll take up with a phantom. Even a classically dysfunctional clan looks like the emotional shelter that’s been missing from her life. To secure that safe harbor Lucy’s even willing to break some of life’s moral commandments.

Most of the more unseemly aspects of the picture, however, are swept under the carpet. Director Jon Turteltaub has a smooth style suited to classic farce and knows just how to pace the material to accentuate the positive. He’s greatly abetted by the graceful camerawork of Phedon Papamichael, who brings unexpected warmth to holiday time in the Windy City.

The twist that keeps the audience off balance is the budding but unresolvable — under the presumed circumstance — romance between the poseur and Mr. Coma’s brother Jack (Bill Pullman). Again, if we weren’t laughing so hard at the comedy of errors, the scenario would be truly painful to watch.

“While You Were Sleeping” is as fragile as a house of cards. Its success is a true testament to its cast and to Turteltaub’s keen sense of balance.

Bullock’s first romantic starring vehicle provides her with something slightly offbeat, allowing her to paint a portrait both simple and sweeping on the emotional palette. Most of all, it reveals a high likability quotient in her role as a smart, if vulnerable, woman.

Pullman, rarely used effectively onscreen, takes great relish in his plum role. He’s a delight, as is Peter Gallagher, who spends the majority of the picture out cold as the mugged victim and object of affection. When he finally comes to, his actions are unusual and unexpected — and impossible for other than an inspired performer.

From an objective distance, it’s clear “Sleeping” is a bunch of phony baloney , consummate in its dishonesty. Yet it’s effective in the manner of a master illusionist. While a few viewers will bristle at the trickery, most will enjoy the clever ruse.

While You Were Sleeping

Production

A Buena Vista release of a Hollywood Pictures presentation in association with Caravan Pictures. Produced by Joe Roth, Roger Birnbaum. Executive producers , Arthur Sarkissian, Steve Barron. Co-producers, Charles J.D. Schlissel, Susan Stremple. Directed by Jon Turteltaub. Screenplay, Daniel G. Sullivan, Fredric Lebow.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor), Phedon Papamichael; editor, Bruce Green; music, Randy Edelman; production design, Garreth Stover; art direction, Chris Cornwell; costume design, Betsy Cox; sound (Dolby), Curt Frisk; assistant director, Bruce Franklin; casting, Amanda Mackey, Cathy Sandrich. Reviewed at Galaxy Theater, Hollywood, April 11, 1995. MPAA Rating: PG. Running time: 103 min.

With

Lucy Moderatz - Sandra Bullock Jack Callaghan - Bill Pullman Peter Callaghan - Peter Gallagher Ox Callaghan - Peter Boyle Saul Tuttle - Jack Warden Elsie - Glynis Johns Midge Callaghan - Micole Mercurio Jerry Wallace - Jason Bernard Joe Fusco Jr. - Michael Rispoli Ashley Bartlett Bacon - Ally Walker Mary Callaghan - Monica Keena

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