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‘Sleepless’: An Affair to Remember : Movie review: Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks shine in Nora Ephron’s romantic comedy that almost makes us forget our modern-day cynicism.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

“Sleepless in Seattle” (citywide), a real charmer, is a romantic comedy about an ultimate long-distance relationship. Emphasize “romantic.” Emphasize “comedy.” It delivers both.

The “Sleepless” lovers--Tom Hanks as Sam, the insomniac Seattle widower-architect, and Meg Ryan as Annie, the streetwise Baltimore journalist--not only live in different cities on different coasts, they don’t even know each other. Annie is aware of Sam only from a national call-in radio show and, for Sam, Annie is a will-o'-the-wisp emanating from a few letters and glimpses and his son Jonah’s fervent championing of her as candidate for a new mom.

Director-writer Nora Ephron’s quick-quip take on talk-radio crushes makes her film contemporary. But “Sleepless” is also determinedly old-fashioned--a movie scored to nostalgia songs, from Jimmy Durante to Joe Cocker--that tries to waft us back to the great days of the American romantic comedy: that era, from the ‘30s to the late ‘50s, when beautiful, supremely sharp-witted people traded rapid-fire banter and spiky innuendoes in picturesque settings, a vision of courtship that seduced much of the nation from the Great Depression onward.

For Ephron, the 1957 Leo McCarey-Cary Grant-Deborah Kerr “An Affair to Remember"--a classic shipboard romantic comedy-turned-tearjerker--is as much a touchstone as “Casablanca” was in “Play It Again, Sam.” It’s the movie the “Sleepless” characters try to dream their way into. The women love and blubber over “Affair,” the kids watch it and the men jibe at it: “The Dirty Dozen” is their idea of a good cry at the flicks.

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We don’t make those kind of Lubitsch-Wilder-Capra movies anymore, because it’s hard to kid about what goes on behind bedroom walls when the bedroom doors have long since been flung open. So Ephron invents strategies to keep us, teased, outside the boudoir. In “When Harry Met Sally . . . ,” she kept her lovers separate by making them bickering friends; in her directorial debut, “This Is My Life,” she took the viewpoint of two little girls; here, working from Jeff Arch’s original script, she makes Hanks and Ryan bicoastal dream lovers, destiny’s darlings.

Ephron’s direction has improved and relaxed since “This Is My Life.” The movie has a pro’s glow--and a sparkling cast. Rosie O’Donnell (Annie’s pal), Bill Pullman (who plays the Ralph Bellamy part), Rob Reiner (Sam’s chum), Rita Wilson (Mrs. Hanks, who does a lovely, goofy crackup over “An Affair to Remember”) and Ross Malinger (Sam’s Cupid kid) all have their shining moments.

Yet, Hanks and Ryan are the center: one screen couple with so much simpatico, that we don’t need to see them together. Hanks has that easy, shaggy, sarcastic teddy-bear quality that seems ideal for the post-greed era, and Ryan, an actress you can never see too much of, is as much a comic-romantic live wire here as she was in “When Harry Met Sally . . . .” Maybe she and Ephron should sign a long-term contract.

Like all the best screen actors, Ryan can strip thoughts and emotions bare without seeming to push. Here, she’s obviously an Ephron surrogate: a nervy blond tough cookie, with scrumptious chocolate sentiments buried inside. But she’s no mouthpiece, shifting deftly, as Hanks does, between poignancy and wisecracks.

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There are obvious flaws in “Sleepless in Seattle”: some overcuteness, the cruel undercurrent that usually permeates these “destiny lover” stories, a negligible “Annie-in-Seattle” interlude, a visual bareness that Sven Nykvist’s lustrous lighting only slightly disguises, and a sometimes shaky sense of place, despite the extensive four-city location photography.

But most audiences will probably forgive its sins, for the sake of its blarney. In the Golden Era romantic comedies, that was the formula. These movies could go sentimental in the end because they were so cynical, sharp and funny in the beginning. We’re wrong to think the old audiences couldn’t see through them; they were dreams willingly entered into.

Today, “Sleepless in Seattle” (MPAA-rated PG, for some language) may try to convince us of something we don’t really believe anymore, that Ephron herself doesn’t believe anymore--and that Leo McCarey didn’t believe when he made “An Affair to Remember.” But at least it tries : stirring up those silken old fantasies we thought we outgrew, making them come happily alive again for an evening. For a good many of us, they probably will.

‘Sleepless in Seattle’

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Tom Hanks: Sam Baldwin

Meg Ryan: Annie Reed

Bill Pullman: Walter

Ross Malinger: Jonah Baldwin

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Rosie O’Donnell: Becky

A TriStar Pictures presentation of a Gary Foster production. Director Nora Ephron. Producer Gary Foster. Screenplay by Jeff Arch, Ephron, David S. Ward. Cinematographer Sven Nykvist. Editor Robert Reitano. Costumes Judy Ruskin. Music Marc Shaiman. Music Supervision Shaiman, Nicholas Meyers. Production design Jeffrey Townsend. Art directors Gershon Ginsburg, Charley Beal. Set designer Charles Daboub Jr. Set decorator Clay Griffith. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.

MPAA-rated PG (for some language).


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