There’s a good reason Sandra Bullock took the title of “Queen of the Romantic Comedy” away from Meg Ryan in the middle of the 1990s.1 As epitomized in While You Were Sleeping (the movie which first launched Bullock into romcom stardom and still the best of them she’s made to date) Bullock projects a naturally awkward adorableness which makes the audience feel very protective of her: we empathize with her romantic plight and we want her to succeed because she obviously deserves the attention she’s so desperately craving. Ryan never truly seemed like One of Us; her romantic problems always seemed to exist on another level entirely and Ryan projected a sort of aloofness. And while Bullock’s love woes are equally contrived, she herself seems much more accessible to us: we’re much more likely want to give Bullock a comforting hug than Ryan.
(Incidientally, I’m curious to see the seeming shift in her on-screen persona in the more recent The Proposal — she’s clearly playing against type as the less vulnerable of the leads and letting the also-affable Ryan Reynolds take on the more likable role. The shift didn’t seem to affect the movie’s box office any, but I’m curious to see if I’ll like her in the position of power.)
Lonely Chicago transit system employee Lucy Moderatz (Bullock) spends her days in a tiny booth taking an endless supply of train tokens from commuters; she spends her night in her apartment alone with her cat, eating frozen dinners. Lucy has convinced herself she’s fallen in love with Peter, a handsome, well-dressed man (Peter Gallagher) who comes through her station every morning, though of course she’s never spoken to him. On Christmas Day, she witnesses him get mugged and knocked onto the train tracks, then manages to pull him off the tracks in time to save his life. At the hospital, in the sort of misunderstanding on which romantic comedies are designed, his family mistakes her for a fiancée they’d never heard about. Peter’s in a coma and can’t clear up the issue, and Lucy’s unsure how to do so and unsure she wants to…until she meets Peter’s brother Jack (Bill Pullman).
While You Were Sleeping
- Directed by Jon Turteltaub
- Written by Daniel G. Sullivan and Fredric LeBow
- Starring Sandra Bullock, Bill Pullman, Peter Gallagher, Peter Boyle, Jack Warden
Bullock’s Lucy is the perfect sort of heroine for a movie like While You Were Sleeping: she’s endearing and harmless, letting herself sink into the moral morass of the film’s plot because she can’t bear to break the hearts of her newly-adopted family. Even when we disagree with her choices, we get where she’s coming from — she only has the best of intentions. We’d never stand for her decisions in real life, but within the context of the movie, they’re, well…adorable. Bullock’s natural charm shines through in this movie — as does Pullman’s. In many romantic comedies, some even starring Bullock, we think the protagonists should end up together only because their names are above the credits and we know they’ll be together in the happy ending. Here, both Bullock and Pullman are so likable that we want them to work their way through the convolutions of the plot so they can find each other.
The movie’s very professionally directed by Jon Turteltaub, and I don’t mean that to sound disrespectful. So many movies feature awkward reaction shots or questionable line readings or bizarre transitions, just to name a few pet peeves, which make the film seem amateur no matter what the budget. But Turteltaub leaves none of those moments in While You Were Sleeping (with the possible exception of some strange lines from the venerable Glynis Johns, but I’ll cut her some slack). Turteltaub assembled a thoroughly professional cast (and again, I use that word as praise). Any cast with Peter Boyle, Jack Warden, Gallagher and Pullman will yield some solid acting; Gallagher in particular plays his part with glee, even the throwaway lines. (Of course, he spends half the movie in a coma, but still.)
In the end, While You Were Sleeping might not be extraordinarily witty or incisive and might be more than a little predictable, but it is very pleasant, charming and heart-warming, and I can think of many worse ways to spend an hour-and-a-half.
No, it’s not because Ryan became all collagened and scary-looking; that actually happened later on — indirectly as a result of her dethroning. ↩