Given they’re about love, longing and the good feelings that make life worth living, it’s easy to assume that romantic comedies aka rom-coms are full to the brim with real, actual emotionality, the kind that sears the soul, makes the heart feel truly alive and reminds you that you are living, breathing human being.
But the thing is for all that implied deep emotionality, many of the feelings on vibrantly gushy display are light, frothy and confected, and while there’s nothing wrong with in a rom-com because it’s why we watch them after all, they mean that while most films are an escapist delight, they rarely leave much of an impression.
Again, not really an issue since most of life leaves such a weighty, sometimes scarring impression on us that feeling something soft and sweet land upon us, make us happy and then vanish into fondly remembered thin air, is a welcome reprieve.
But sometimes, in amongst all the falling in love and starry-eyed visions of the future, we want to FEEL something and that’s where superlative rom-coms like 1995’s While You Were Sleeping are so necessary and welcome.
At first glance, While You Were Sleeping may seem like another soul-tickling, heart-caressing fairy floss lightweight joy – certainly with its use, inventive though they might be, of many of the genre’s tropes and cliché would strongly support that case – but dig deeper behind the improbable contrivances, the fairytale endings and the little girl lost-now-found protagonist, and you have a film that actually has some real emotional heft to it whimsically lovely name.
That heft comes, surprisingly likely for some, from Sandra Bullock as protagonist Lucy Eleanor Moderatz, a lonely, sweet woman in her twenties, who following the death of her beloved dad which was preceded by her dropping out of college to look after him, works in a tollbooth on the Chicago “L” and who, over the course of some mmonths has fallen in love at a distance with a handsome regular commuter, played by Peter Gallagher.
She’s never spoken to him, so she has no idea what his name is (Peter Callaghan), what he does for a living, or really, ANYTHING.
But she loves him, well, she thinks she does, and so when an incident at the “L” stop sends him onto the tracks, she dives onto the tracks to rescue him and one thing leads to another and suddenly he’s in a coma in ICU, and his big, garrulous, warm and loving family think she’s his fiancée.
It’s all highly improbably and gloriously, awkwardly twee, but it works because Lucy is a sweet, well-intentioned, emotionally vulnerable young woman who wants to do the right thing and come clean, because she’s a good person but who can’t resist, uncomfortable as she feels, being enveloped by the warmth and love of a family she’s always wanted.
It’s contrivance piled upon silly narrative set-up but you absolutely buy it because Lucy is just such a wholesomely lovely person, something Peter’s family, anxious to seize on any good news about their estranged son/brother/godson/grandson, recognise immediately even if they don’t quite understand why it is she’s there.
The fact that she’s there, and she’s delightful, is more than enough and we buy into this fairytale twist on a scary situation because Lucy wants love and family, the Callaghans are decent, honest folk and just want to give it, and everyone seems happy.
Who can possibly begrudge that?
No one that’s who, and While You Were Sleeping pivots and pivots affectingly well on the strength of Bullock’s performance who totally sells the idea of a vulnerable, grief-stricken (her dad only died a year before, her mum when she was a kid and she has no one else) lonely person who, despite having buckets of integrity and a good heart, goes along with the heartfelt chaos of Peter’s hospital stay because she just wants to be loved.
It’s the richness of Bullock’s beautifully understated performance that sells all manner of rom-com contrivance because confected though the set-up and execution is, there’s an underlying real emotionality to the film that gives its an authenticity it would otherwise lack.
We get our fairytale but we get what kind of , sort of feels like real life too, with its gritty half-done moments and its inadvertent emotional cruelty that can leave someone as lovely as Lucy marooned without anyone to call her own.
Bill Pullman, as Peter’s good-natured, loyal, caring woodworking brother Jack matches Bullock perfectly, not simply in the understated veracity of his portrayal of a guy who loves his over-the-top but warmhearted family but needs to chart his own course, but in his own vulnerability as a guy who wants more out of life than he’s hitherto been able to get.
Their slow-burn romance, which neither can acknowledge because Peter is in a coma(!), develops quickly but somehow naturally and so, by the time we get to the point where Lucy knows nothing about the current situation is sustainable, and is begging Saul (Jack Warden), godfather to Peter to come clean to dad Ox (Peter Boyle), mum Midge (Micole Mercutio), grandmother Elsie (Glynis John, who does kooky sweetness to absolute perfection) and Peter and Jack’s sister Mary (Monica Keena) that she’s only in their warm embrace because of completely inadvertent emotional fraud, all we want is for life’s usual harsh reality to be defied and for Lucy, and yes, Jack but mostly Lucy, to get her much-deserved, and needed, happy-ever-after.
The genius of While You Were Sleeping, which sparkles with a gilded Chicago setting, breezily upbeat cute music that feels playful and light and a Nora Ephron sense of the ridiculous being entirely reasonable and possible, is in that top tier of rom-coms which, thanks to the veracity of performance by Bullock (and really, the whole cast) and a strong script which injects some real, moving humanity into hilariously confected, honestly overblown proceedings, takes its OTT premise and runs with it to your heart which, like the Callaghans who embrace Lucy without question, takes it all in, feels wonderful for the first time in forever and holds it tight, glad to have a happy-ever-after in a world not exactly known for them.