While You Were Sleepless: holiday alternative films
In the realm of "movies that I kinda like watching around Christmas time but aren't really Christmas movies" I'd have to first mention two movies that really have nothing to do with each other except Bill Pullman and very opposing takes on zonking out: While You Were Sleeping and Sleepless in Seattle.
I think one of the reasons these movies come to mind around the holiday season is that they both basically start on or around Christmas. That's about it. But there's something of an impression made when you see Christmas celebrations at key moments in movies. That's largely why It's a Wonderful Life is considered a Christmas classic.
But first, the stories
Sleepless in Seattle
The story opens right after Sam Baldwin (Tom Hanks) and his son, Jonah (Ross Malinger), have lost their wife and mother to cancer. It sounds like the opening of a heavy drama, and at first, that's how it plays out.
But for a change of scene and a change of pace, Sam realizes he has to move from Chicago, where everything reminds him of his wife, to Seattle. But he continues to grieve.
Fast forward 18 months. One Christmas Eve, Jonah calls a radio talk show trying to get help for his father, who he hopes will eventually get remarried. On the talk show, they avoid using real names, so after being persuaded to talk to the host of the show, and revealing that he has trouble sleeping, he's given the nom de radio "Sleepless in Seattle".
Okay, so that's a long way to set up the story, but it turns out that Annie Reed (Meg Ryan), engaged to Walter (Bill Pullman), was one of the women who heard Sam's confession on the radio. Women from all over the country, including Annie, start writing to the poor widower via the radio station. Jonah quickly latches on to Annie's letter and insists that his father try to meet her.
Meanwhile, Annie, a Baltimore Sun reporter, uses her contacts to sniff out Sam's real identity and does some cute, light staking. Jonah, pretending to be his father, arranges with Annie to meet at the top of the Empire State Building on Valentine's Day. You know just like in that movie: all of them.
While You Were Sleeping
This movie opens a bit more like you might expect a comedy to.
Lucy Moderatz (Sandra Bullock) is a booth worker for a Chicago train station. She has no family anymore, but there is this one handsome guy—Peter Callaghan (Peter Gallagher)—who comes through that station a lot and on whom she's developed a bit of a crush. And I'll admit, he is quite handsome.
One day, there's an altercation and Peter falls onto the track. Lucy rushes to help and sees an express train coming by. She jumps on the track and pulls the man to the side just in time.
At the hospital, things get confused. She mutters to herself that she'd hoped to marry that man. A nearby well-meaning nurse overhears and when the man's family—I mean his whole family—shows up at the hospital, they're told that Lucy is Peter's fiance.
Things happen so fast and with such emotion that Lucy is unable to drop the truth bomb on them all.
Ordinarily movies where one quick sentence would clear up the confusion really tend to bug me. But this is done in a believable and extremely charming way.
Anyway, Lucy is invited to spend a late Christmas with the family, where they glom onto her and simply make it harder and harder for her to extricate herself. The next day, she meets Peter's brother, Jack (Bill Pullman), and Jack gets suspicious of the engagement, but he also kinda starts to thinking that he may just like this rather odd girl his brother's engaged to.
Dot dot dot
I know it's a bit ridiculous, but for a while, whenever I tried to mention one of these movies, I would frequently say the name of the other. My brain apparently filed them both under "sleep" and said, "Eh, that's good enough." It doesn't help that they both have Bill Pullman and came out within a year of each other.
Sleepless in Seattle is a great, charming and well told story. The relationship between Sam and Jonah feels very natural and father/son-ish. (That's a word now.) In fact, some of my favorite moments of the movie are when it's simply Sam and Jonah talking together. Like when he pulls down the map. Very fun.
And Ross Malinger may not be the best actor I've ever seen, but for a child actor, he's very very good.
Meanwhile, While You Were Sleeping is such a fun, heart-warming little comedy, and it has so so many sections that my family quotes, sometimes ad nauseam.
"Do I like Jell-o?" "I never said he was Spanish. I said he was tall." "These mashed potatoes are so creamy."
Trust me, that last one is more qotable than you might ever think.
The whole movie takes place within about a two week period, running through New Year and just a few days into January. Talk about whirlwind romances. I mean, Lucy was even ostensibly engaged to Peter the whole time Jack was falling for her.
But probably most endearingly, throughout the interactions with the Callaghans, the family really feels like an actual family. Conversations where everyone is talking at once but you can nearly follow it all. Good-natured ribbings and family jokes. It's so natural, that you're not even thrown off by the presence of Saul (Jack Warden), the Jewish neighbor who celebrates Christmas as part of the family and is Catholic Peter Callaghan's godfather.
Saul, in fact, is one of my favorite and one of the most natural characters in the movies.
For family friendly feel-good movies as holiday alternatives, those are probably two of the first ones you should consider.
For me, I marginally prefer While You Were Sleeping, but both are very good.
Sleepless in Seattle gets a solid 8 / 10.
While You Were Sleeping earns a respectable 9 / 10.
Both Sleepless in Seattle and While You Were Sleeping are rated PG for a little bit of language and maybe one or two slightly adult comments. Really not much, though.
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At Christmas, sometimes we overlook the time spent with the family more than we should.
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