First Takes: Sleepless in Seattle

First Takes is a series in our film section where contributors review a classic or iconic film from a modern perspective.

Sleepless in Seattle is a movie which every romcom aficionado like myself grew up watching. Who doesn’t remember the iconic scene at the top of the Empire State Building, or Sam’s (Tom Hanks) heartfelt recollections about his wife? The plot is straightforward: Sam’s wife dies, so he leaves his swanky New York architect job and moves to Seattle to get a change of scenery. There, his son tricks him into getting on a latenight radio talk show, where he pours his heart out to the entirety of the United States. Annie, played by Meg Ryan, hears this and falls head over heels for him, just from his voice. Tom Hanks’s performance is top-notch, as he plays a 30-something man trying to get his life back together after the death of his wife, and get back into a dating scene which he hasn’t experienced for what seems like a millennium. This point is underlined with a steamroller as Gene Autry’s “Back in the Saddle Again” starts playing as soon as he gears up to go on a date, but then again, the early 90s were not known for their subtlety.  

However, watching it past my teens, even though Sam’s monologue remains as sweet as ever, and the iconic Empire State Building scene is still as moving as it was back then, the film has some glaring problems which are hard to ignore. First off, let me say that Walter, played by Bill Pullman, is a perfectly nice dude, and in 2019, it seems a bit clichéd that the only reason Annie doesn’t love him is because she is waiting for a ‘sign’. Instead, she chooses to fall in love with a disembodied voice on the radio. Her friend Becky (portrayed by Rosie o’ Donnell) is the only voice of reason in the film, reminding Annie that Sleepless in Seattle (the radio code name for Sam) could be “a crackhead, a transvestite, a junkie, or a chainsaw murderer” (ah, the subtle 90s homophobia). It‘s also important to call out the behaviour Sam’s son, Jonah, exhibits in the film. Sam starts dating a woman named Victoria, who unfortunately Jonah doesn’t like because of her laugh. So, he calls her a ‘hoe’. On national radio. Twice. 

The most appalling bit of the film, however, starts when Annie begins to actually stalk Sam, and it’s all downplayed as a bit of harmless fun, with a funky piano back-track to boot. She uses false identities to get Sam’s last name, then looks him up on the city database to get his address. All this creeping, and no one batts an eye. After hearing Jonah’s ‘hoe’ monologue about Sam’s current love interest on-air, she just buys a plane ticket and actually comes to Seattle to stalk Sam properly. When Sam sees Annie at the airport, romantic music starts playing, implying he is also interested in her. But it’s just a common device used to justify stalking. One needs to remember that Annie doesn’t know that Sam likes her, and following someone around in a car IS stalking, and NOT normal, even though a smooth romantic tune might be playing in the background. 

All in all, despite all the things the movie gets right, it’s time we recognise the problematic behaviour shown in such films. Critique is dynamic, and changes as our collective sensibilities evolve. Sleepless in Seattle suffers from this fate, and even though tons of people like me see it through a warm lens of nostalgia, it just doesn’t hold up amongst the current batch of films. 

[Gautam Gupta – he/him – @9gcity]

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