That Good Old Romance Thing

Nora Ephron's film, while enjoyable, nonetheless engages in narrow sex-role stereotyping

`SLEEPLESS in Seattle," the new romantic comedy directed by Nora Ephron, is a likable little picture in many ways.

Tom Hanks plays a widowed man grappling with the challenge of reordering his life, raising his young son, and overcoming memories of the idyllic marriage he's lost. Meg Ryan plays a single woman who's about to marry a fellow she almost loves - and can't help wondering if a more exciting possibility might be waiting for her somewhere.

The two don't meet until the movie is almost over, but it's clear from the start that this Mr. and Ms. Right will find each other before the final credits.

Along the way they muddle through various problems, cope with his precocious son and her not-quite-right fiance, and edge toward the sentimental climax that pictures like this usually provide.

Their adventures are accompanied by classic songs that swell from the soundtrack to keep us amused even when the action slows to a crawl.

Although it's capably made, there's not much depth to "Sleepless in Seattle" unless you pay attention to a provocative question it implicitly raises: Are there such a thing as "guy" movies and "gal" movies? Do some kinds of entertainment just naturally please men and leave women cold, while others just as naturally do the opposite?

The ingredient that raises this issue in Ephron's film is a series of clips from an old movie: "An Affair To Remember," made in 1957, with Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr as lovers who pursue romance despite all odds. "Sleepless in Seattle" is loaded with female characters who endlessly watch, refer to, and cry over this weepy so-called woman's movie from almost 40 years ago. It's also loaded with male characters who yawn at Grant and Kerr, preferring macho pics like "The Dirty Dozen" and sneering at the ver y idea of getting emotionally worked up over a movie.

Some people would agree with Ephron's idea that men and women have different priorities in this area. An example might be Marilyn Quayle, who raised a commotion when she spoke about the "natural essence of women" at the Republican National Convention last year. If she's right and women do have a natural essence, it stands to reason that their tastes in cinema would fall in line with this. Men, who presumably have an essence of their own, would always seek different paths.

Others would dispute this whole idea, arguing that anyone who talks about a natural essence probably has a specific definition in mind - and is likely to see those who vary from the mold as unnatural, nonessential, or both.

I guess my natural essence has gone astray, because I'd rather see a sensitive 1950s melodrama than a boisterous war picture any day, and I think Cary Grant is more fun to watch than half the Dirty Dozen gang put together.

I enjoyed parts of "Sleepless in Seattle," but I don't like the way it divides its characters along rigged-up gender lines.

I also object to its view of destiny running our lives and loves. If you took this movie seriously, you'd think there was no such thing as individual volition. Once your gender is determined, and fate has decided your romantic partner, all you have to do is follow your essence and wait for your happy ending to come around.

"Sleepless in Seattle" doesn't mean to spark philosophical debates, but its attitudes are so sharply defined that it does seem to be pushing an agenda at times. More generally, it's an old-fashioned picture in many ways - including good ways such as its lack of titillation and its good-natured star performances. In this way the movie appears to argue for an old-fashioned movie world in which issues, genders, and relationships were as clear-cut as the black-and-white cinematography that often brought them

to the screen.

While it's easy to take nostalgic pleasure in this approach, it's worth remembering that the best old movies rarely embraced simplistic notions of love and destiny. Instead they conveyed their own complexities in ways more subtle than most of today's filmmakers would understand.

Hanks and Ryan are pleasant company throughout "Sleepless in Seattle," and Rob Reiner and Rosie O'Donnell are amusing as their guy-type and gal-type best friends.

The supporting cast also includes Bill Pullman as the fiance and Ross Malinger as the hero's son, who sets the story in motion when he calls a radio-show psychologist for help in combating his dad's blues.

The picture has been handsomely shot by Sven Nykvist, whose legendary photographic talents are as eloquent in the Pacific Northwest as in his native Sweden, where he honed his skills on numerous Ingmar Bergman classics. Ephron wrote the screenplay with David Ward and Jeff Arch.

* "Sleepless in Seattle" has a PG rating. It contains some vulgar language and talk about sexual matters.

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