In fact, Ephron and fellow writers Jeff Arch and David S. Ward have conspired to make “Sleepless in Seattle” as purposefully schmaltzy as one can imagine, in a manner that’s almost cynical — as if audiences can’t be trusted to buy into a good, old-fashioned romance without trappings like skies replete with shooting stars.
That said, there’s inherent appeal in the set-up, Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan fare considerably better than their last pairing (for the record, the sputtering “Joe Versus the Volcano”), and young Ross Malinger is one of the most appealing and real moppets since Justin Henry — whom he resembles — in “Kramer vs. Kramer.” The biggest problem may be the leisurely pace Ephron pursues in getting to an outcome that’s such a foregone conclusion.
Sam (Hanks) is still grieving over the death of his wife (Carey Lowell, seen in flashback) when his son phones a late night radio call-in show saying he thinks the solution is for dad to remarry. Sam reluctantly gets on the line and ends up spilling his guts, showing such sensitivity that thousands of women write in offering to cure his sorrowful insomnia.
Among those listening is Annie (Ryan), a just-engaged newspaper reporter whose husband-to-be Walter (Bill Pullman) is sensible but not very exciting. She finds herself increasingly obsessed with “Sleepless in Seattle,” Sam’s on-air designation, fearing that she may be settling for “OK” on the romance scale instead of actually finding “magic.”
The movie pursues a parallel structure, with Sam’s friends and son Jonah (Malinger) pushing him toward opening up while Annie voices her own doubts only to her co-worker Becky (Rosie O’Donnell) and creating a strain on her relationship with her fiance.
There are some extremely amusing explorations of dating mores, plus more somber moments — providing Hanks an opportunity to strut his dramatic stuff — delving into Sam’s almost tangible grief.
Yet for all the enjoyable flourishes, and there are many, Ephron keeps pausing to remind us, through various contrivances, that this is a movie, making it hard for anyone to really get lost in the story. And since the big question isn’t “if,” but “when” and “how,” the film loses considerable momentum about two-thirds through before rallying for a heart-tugging finale.
More than anything else, “Sleepless” may be a boon to 20th Century Fox, spurring rentals of “An Affair to Remember,” which is used not only as a key plot device but as a running gag throughout — demonstrating a movie whose squishy romantic elements appeal to women more than men.
In fact, it’s precisely that emphasis here that may prevent “Sleepless” from being quite the sleeper it could have been.
Hanks certainly figures to increase his stock as a well-rounded actor and not just a comic, while Ryan essentially plays the same character as “Sally,” with pleasing if predictable results.
Other supporting roles are generally strong, though Pullman is a bit less annoying than he should have been to prevent audiences from feeling undue sympathy toward his character near the finish.
On the tech side, Sven Nykvist’s camerawork does the romance justice, while Marc Shaiman’s music and the carefully chosen song score evoke their share of laughs but at times prove overbearing.
Tuned-in viewers may also feel the editing by virtue of the truncated appearances by some supporting players, though it’s also clear “Sleepless” is as long as it needed to be.