While You Were Sleeping

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While You Were Sleeping (1995) is one of those films from the “golden age” of romantic comedies that adapted the farcical plotting of screwball comedies for the nineties by populating the narrative with more grounded and less stylized characters and performances. The film employs a number of screwball comedy tropes such as the mistaken identity, the elderly male confidant, and its ideation of working class masculinity. In essence While You Were Sleeping has more in common with Mitchell Leisen’s Midnight (1939) than it does with the ever popular contemporaneous films of Nora Ephron.

Director Jon Turteltaub brings the same warmth and wry humor to While You Were Sleeping that made such films as Cool Runnings (1993), 3 Ninjas (1992) and National Treasure (2004) popular hits. Although Turteltaub isn’t the renowned auteur that Ephron or Rob Reiner are, he is an adept craftsman capable of soliciting excellent performances from actors playing totally. bonkers situations. While You Were Sleeping hits with the precision of a filmmaker who has devoted ample time studying the comedies of the masters such as Leisen, Howard Hawks, Preston Sturges, Frank Borzage and Ernst Lubitsch. It should go without saying that the film is further bolstered by a remarkable ensemble of supporting players that includes Peter Boyle, Jack Warden, and Glynis Johns.

But no matter the significant contributions of these collaborators While You Were Sleeping is Sandra Bullock’s film. Like Meg Ryan, Bullock plays the American everywoman with an abundance of wit and charm that makes her character as likable as she is relatable. The entirety of While You Were Sleeping hinges on Bullocks performance that must convey not just falling in love, but an intense internalized moral conflict. Unlike the heroines of most romantic comedies of the nineties Bullock’s Lucy has a clear sense of morality whose various ramifications are not denied by the plot but rather embraced by it. Lucy is the opposite of Julianne in My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997) because Lucy is never in denial of her deception or agenda for she is constantly endeavoring to correct these errors and make amends (even as she is pressured not to by outside forces).

Despite its relative uniqueness and commercial success While You Were Sleeping has seemed to fade into obscurity. Perhaps in part it’s been dwarfed by the towering chemistry of the Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks romantic comedies which have become synonymous with the nineties. But even more so While You Were Sleeping suffers from not having an iconic image that sums up the film. Romantic comedies of the nineties, the so called “golden age”, typically had that one image that was crucial to marketing campaigns and became a part of our popular visual lexicon. Sleepless In Seattle (1993) had its image of Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan atop the Empire State building; You’ve Got Mail (1998) positioned Hanks and Ryan on either side of a row of shrubs, passing each other unaware; My Best Friend’s Wedding featured the famous chase across the green as Julia Roberts pursued Dermot Mulroney who is in pursuit of Cameron Diaz.

The sad thing is While You Were Sleeping is every bit as good as either Sleepless In Seattle or You’ve Got Mail and far better than My Best Friend’s Wedding, The Truth About Cats & Dogs (1996), or Return To Me (2000). When we talk about romantic comedies in the nineties we should picture Bill Pullman’s charming smirk in the same moment we remember Meg Ryan’s squeaky little giggle. In a moment where popular American culture is so consumed with exhuming nineties’ cultural artifacts and films it seems only right to advocate for a critical reappraisal of While You Were Sleeping.