TFS the Season: While You Were Sleeping (1995)
Romantic-comedies set during the winter holidays are common. Snowfall is more enchanting before the New Year. The twinkly lights give everything a playful glow. The holidays can also exacerbate loneliness; it seems like everyone else has a family dinner to go to or a date for New Year’s Eve. ‘Togetherness’ is shoved down the throats of those who don’t have a loved one to cuddle with in front of an inviting fireplace. The 1995 rom-com While You Were Sleeping hits on these themes, better than any other rom-com does in my opinion. This movie isn’t just about a search for love, but the longing for a place to call one’s own.
Sandra Bullock stars as Lucy Moderatz, a lonely, melancholy transit employee. Lucy dreams of a more adventurous, romantic life since her widowed father passed away a from illness a year ago. She’s in love from afar with the handsome, sophisticated Peter Callaghan (Peter Gallagher). One day, Peter is pushed onto the train tracks after being mugged and Lucy rescues him. At the hospital, Peter falls into a coma and Lucy is mistaken for his fiancée. When she meets Peter’s family and sees how warm and accepting they are of her, Lucy can’t bring herself to tell them the truth. She gets to know the Callaghans, and starts falling in love with his brother Jack (Bill Pullman).
On paper, this concept is outlandish. The mistaken identity plot isn’t by itself plausible but thanks to a winning lead performance from Sandra Bullock and her supporting cast it’s easy to go along. The family is played by ace comic actor Peter Boyle, Jack Warden, Micole Mercurio, Glynis Johns, and Monica Keena. Together they create a lovably loony family and it’s easy to see why Lucy would be drawn to them. Lucy feels obligated to them because she cares about them.
One of my favorite scenes in the film is the Christmas gift-opening scene. The camera pans around the family as each member opens their gift, chatting away about nothing. The film cuts back and forth from the family to Lucy watching them. Bullock gives the most heartbreaking expression. She’s smiling, but there’s a clear sadness beneath that smile. As welcoming as the Callaghans are, she doesn’t really belong with them.
What elevates While You Were Sleeping for me is its depiction of loneliness. It’s not that Lucy is literally alone. She has friends, co-workers, even a delusional suitor. Her loneliness is more profound. It’s a deep loneliness, brought on by her father’s death. It’s the kind of loneliness that doesn’t really go away. Lucy recognizes the same in Jack, and their courtship is cute but unspoken. They both come alive with each other.
I know, I’m making this movie sound really depressing. But it is very funny and often delightfully absurd. The Callaghans themselves are a sitcom waiting to happen. Peter Gallagher is perfect as the obliviously douchey rich dude. Bill Pullman is as charming as ever. But this is Sandra Bullock’s movie. Bullock had success with Demolition Man in 1993 and the iconic Speed in 1994. But While You Were Sleeping was a major turning point for her. The movie grossed $182 million worldwide, and cemented Bullock as a star. She’s charismatic and relatable, selling both the comic set pieces and the more dramatic moments. Sandra Bullock made a career out of playing authentic, everyday characters. It’s no surprise that she’s had box office success well into the 2010s. Bullock almost always seems to know what kind of films her audience wants to see and delivers. She is often both effervescent and approachable on screen.
While You Were Sleeping doesn’t have much pedigree behind the scenes. Jon Turteltaub, who went on to make National Treasure and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, directed the film. The two screenwriters Daniel G. Sullivan and Fredric Lebow didn’t work much after. The film isn’t very visually inventive, but does have an appealingly ‘90s look. The soundtrack has some reliable holiday tunes, complementing Randy Edelman’s pleasant score. Originally the film wasn’t set during the holidays, but was rewritten to make it more marketable. I honestly can’t picture the film set during another time of the year. I really love this movie, and I have watched it almost every holiday season.