We all stand on one side of Meg Ryan. She’s one of those things that separate some of us from the rest of us, like practicing Methodism, not eating meat, or being deluded enough to think that never having seen Titanic somehow makes us special. I happen to be a major Meg Ryan fan. I appreciate her body of work, especially the rom-coms, and find her to be an interesting celebrity to keep track of. There’s an ongoing debate about whether one of the Meg Ryan masterpieces, Sleepless in Seattle, is a romantic trifle or a horror film about a sunny stalker. How can I decide? As though it’s that simple.
Like Meg Ryan, Sleepless in Seattle is different things to different people: the gold standard of ‘90s rom-coms to some, a cautionary tale about obsession and parental neglect to others, and everything in between.
The premise of the movie is that Tom Hanks’ wife dies – not his actual wife, Rita Wilson, who is in the movie (which is really confusing for me), but some flashback wife with short hair – and he is very lost and sad and alone with their son on a houseboat. On Christmas Eve, Tom’s son (again, not his real son, Chet Haze), calls into a Dr. Laura-style radio show and convinces his Dad to talk about how much he misses his wife. Tom tells the listeners how he can’t sleep, and he lives in Seattle. It’s a beautiful, sad, moving moment and people all over the country are captivated.
Women begin writing Tom letters in droves, smitten with his endearing story. Meg Ryan, a reporter in Baltimore, hears his story and finds herself moved, but does nothing – at first. Later, she finds herself watching An Affair To Remember at home with Rosie O’Donnell, as any of us would do given the chance. Inspired by this very romantic film, Meg decides to write Tom a letter suggesting he meet her on top of the Empire State Building on Valentine’s Day. She doesn’t intend to send the letter; she’s just doing it as some sort of emotional exercise or something. Rosie, who is Meg’s editor and just really wonderful in this movie, mails the letter for Meg and sends her to New York to do an article on these radio shows.
Okay, so here’s where stuff gets a little weird. If a lady (from Baltimore, no less) contacted me and asked me to meet her on top of one of the tallest buildings in Manhattan on Valentine’s Day, I’d raise an eyebrow. And doesn’t Tom Hanks just have the best eyebrows in the biz? (Okay, Quinto wins, but Tom’s are great.)
Weirder still, Tom Hanks’ son, Jonah, gets the letter and is so moved by it that he insists on going to New York to meet Meg himself, writing her a letter as his dad. Jonah, to be clear, is like eight years old. Girls’ Gaby Hoffman then helps him go behind his father’s back and fly to New York alone to meet this strange woman on top of a giant building. Once there, Jonah desperately asks every woman if she’s Annie (Meg Ryan’s character name, not the beloved musical comedy/comic strip character).
Meg ends up calling off her engagement to Stand Up Guy ™ Bill Pullman over dinner at The Rainbow Room because she can’t stop staring at the Empire State Building, thinking about the guy she’s obsessed with from the radio. Tom and Meg have still never had a conversation at this point. Once, after showing up at his Seattle home, she did say hi to him from the middle of a busy street, but they’ve never even discussed the weather. Her ring returned, Annie/Meg rushes to the Empire State Building, hoping to find Tom there at midnight – but the whole place is closed! No one is allowed on the roof, not even Meg Ryan. However, she convinces this uniformed policeman to allow her to go to the top of one of the biggest landmarks in the country because – get ready – the guard’s wife also likes An Affair To Remember. This is as pre-9/11 as it gets, y’all.
At this point, thank God, Tom gets his head out of his own ass and steps up to the plate of being a father. He jets off after his son, and finds the kid at the Empire State Building. The elevator doors close just as Meg gets to the top of the building in one of those amazing just-missed-each-other moments that movies like this do so brilliantly. It’s really sad and you wonder, for a split second, if Meg Ryan is going to jump off the building, giving the movie a really startling but interesting finale.
Just then, Meg spots the backpack Jonah left behind (this kid cannot get it together). Jonah comes back to find Meg with his bag and teddy bear. Tom arrives right behind him, and upon seeing her realizes that Meg Ryan is the lady from the letter. At this moment, the security guard makes them leave the building and in the film’s final frames we see Tom Hanks, the woman who has stalked Tom Hanks from across the country, and his visibly troubled son step into an elevator together. The doors close and the movie ends with a stunning shot of Manhattan by the late great superwoman Nora Ephron.
The real answer to whether or not this is a film about romance or psychotic stalking exists in what you imagine happens after those elevator doors close. In one scenario, the three get to the bottom, go out for ice cream – maybe an espresso for the adults – and spend the next few days taking in the sites and sounds of New York City. In another version, Meg Ryan’s character has a gun, and we all know what guns can do. In yet another version, nurse Rosie wakes up mental patient Meg from a Thorazine-induced dream and wheels her to therapy, where she recounts the past hour of the movie. In a completely reasonable version, they get to the bottom of the Empire State Building and realize they don’t really vibe as much as they thought they might. Maybe they just get to the bottom, part ways, and go on with their lives, never bumping into each other again – leaving the film as one of those moments in life where we really like somebody in an instant, but a moment that is bound to fade.
However, I think the reason why this film is so great and why it’s such a classic romantic comedy is that we all root for these two. We can all see elements of ourselves woven into the characters of Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, and despite the implausibility of the story, they are so charming and likable and perfect for each other. We all hope that someday something sort of magical and sort of crazy like that could happen to us. Because at the end of the day, at the end of the movie, and at the end of it all, that’s just what love is, a little bit magic and a little bit crazy. Which is what makes Sleepless In Seattle – and love – a story worth revisiting again and again.