Few films captured the tremulous edge of the 90s romcom quite like While You Were Sleeping, and even fewer had such a strange and original premise. Scripted by Daniel G. Sullivan and Fredric Lebow, Sandra Bullock plays Lucy Moderatz, a Chicago L worker. Every day she sees an unknown man board the train, played by Peter Gallgher, and every day she fantasises a life with him, until a gang of muggers push him onto the track, and she jumps down to save him. When she visits him in hospital, she learns that his name is Peter Callaghan, and muses to herself about marrying him, only for a nurse to hear, and tell the Callaghan family that Lucy is his fiancée. Lucy finds herself swept into the bosom of the Callaghan family over Christmas, where she feels compelled to keep up the ruse after Saul Tuttle, Jack’s godfather, played by Jack Warden, discovers her secret, but insists that the truth will come as too much of a shock to Peter’s grandmother, who has a weak heart condition. Meanwhile, she starts to fall for Peter’s brother Jack, played by Bill Pullman, who she meets at Christmas.
From the outset, While You Were Sleeping is a love letter to Chicago, full of location shooting and sweeping establishing shots. Lucy always seeks advice from her manager, Jerry Wallace, played by Jason Bernard, on the sidewalk above the Chicago River, while she first realises that she loves Jack when they have to spend an evening walking around the city, and along the river, after his truck gets parked in. Yet this vision of the city is laced with a certain Midwestern humour as well – the opening credits take us through a series of quirky Chicago sites, before we shift to a voiceover, from Lucy, joking about how the furthest she’s even been is Milwaukee, as a child, when she and her father used to pretend Wisconsin was a fantasy land.
This Midwestern eccentricity continues into the Callaghan family, who recall the enormous Chicago family troupe of Home Alone, along with the general trend for wacky WASPs in the 90s, especially in films set over the holiday season, like The Accidental Tourist or Home for the Holidays. The Callaghans always appear suddenly, in a pack, en masse, cluttering mise-en-scenes in the same cosy way that family objects clutter their house. Like Lucy, we first see their house on Christmas, as they exchange even more objects to line their walls and shelves. They come as a pack, meaning Turteltaub doesn’t have to differentiate them all that much, to the point that it’s not even clear how they all relate to Peter – they’re just a package deal.
This turns Lucy’s fantasy romance with Peter into a romance with his family, and then a romance through his family, once she meets Jack. Both Lucy and Jack, in their own ways, are outsiders within the Callaghan family – Lucy because she is an imposter, and Jack because he has never worked up the courage to step away from the family business. They both form a strong rapport with Saul, Peter’s Jewish godfather, the only member of the family who is fully fleshed out, presumably because he is also on the cusp of the family. They both also approach the Callaghans like a sitcom, as comic relief and as a form of vicarious domesticity they can’t quite achieve themselves. At one point Saul notes that “you’re born into a family, you don’t just join them,” and yet the film contradicts this, inviting us to join in like the best sitcoms do.
As in a sitcom, the action often lingers in the same domestic space, with comic exits and entrances, usually accompanied by the same comforting piano tinkle. The opening scenes are also pitched more at sitcom than a feature film, driven by Lucy’s voiceover, which suggests a peppy seriality. She’s single, lonely, but not desperate – this is light years away from the cosmic singledom of, say, Sleepless in Seattle, which opens with a similar kind of eccentricity but which disposes of Pullman much more peremptorily as does The Accidental Touris. Singledom, here, feels like a bridge to all kinds of twee, whimsical and quirky experiences, rather than a dead end – and the film makes good on that promise, throwing in romance too.
Like a sitcom, then, the Callaghans are family-as-décor, family-as-mise-en-scene. We learn that their family business is in estate furniture, meaning that they are always surrounded by objects that already suggest a lived-in mise-en-scene, which makes the whole film feel cosily lived-in as well. Conversely, Peter feels more dissociated from the family as the film proceeds – and not just because he remains in a coma. His apartment in Lake Point Tower, the only residential tower ever constructed between Lake Shore Drive and Lake Michigan, is the starkest and sparsest space in the film – pointedly postmodern in contrast to the suburban Callaghan home. Just to hammer home that contrast, Jack’s wedding gift is a couch that would suit the Callaghan home, but feels totally out of place in Lake Point Tower, where it chips the wood of the doorframe and then sends a vase of blue-dyed water catapulting over the carpet.
As Peter fades into the background as a romantic possibility, Lucy and Jack develop a soulful rapport. Both of them see, in the Callaghans, the family they always wanted, right before their eyes, but neither of them can quite accomplish it. Lucy, who hasn’t got a family of her own, always knows she’s an interloper, while Jack realises he can’t restore his own equilibrium in the family without Lucy either. They spent long periods in the film driving around in the Callaghan family van, packed full of estate furniture, which becomes a kind of perpetual removalists’ truck – a vision of their shared fantasy of a family home, if only they knew where to take it. Whereas Jack has always worked for the family business, his real dream is to stop relying on the estates of others and instead construct furniture, and mise-en-scenes, of his own – a dream that finally seems realisable when he is driving around in the van with Lucy.
While You Were Sleeping is thus quite an unconventional romance in that both leads spend most of the film alone – or knowing that they’re more alone than they appear to be, despite being ostensibly couched in family. Peter, who remains in a coma, fulfils the same function here as the romcom does in everyday life – somewhere to park the fantasy so that a real relationship can emerge, like a displaced meet-cute. Lucy and Jack’s romance is most precious and precarious after Peter wakes up, when they have to find a way to reconcile reality and fantasy. Peter’s understanding of Lucy, upon waking up, also involves a series of statements that totally collapse reality and fantasy: “You do remind me of someone – it’s probably you.” Even Peter Callaghan’s name is remarkably close to Peter Gallagher’s, collapsing star and actor into the some romcom fantasy horizon, only to displace it as Jack takes centre stage.
Since Peter is the placeholder for the romcom, the rest of the film doesn’t really feel like a modern romcom – in a good way. Instead, we have an eccentric take on the 1930s comedy of remarriage, which typically involved couples breaking apart, then coming together again, replacing their original fantasy of marriage with a more expansive reality. Here, the distinction between fantasy and reality is much starker, as Peter takes on the burden of fantasy, making the reality of Lucy and Bill’s relationship feel wonderfully provisional, emergent and open-ended. At first, this produces a general screwball vibe, where everyone – especially the Callaghans – are always talking at cross-purposes. As the noise starts to die down, however, Lucy and Bill find space for a more elastic and experimental relationship, for a new kind of curiosity about what men and women can be together – a new space for romantic curiosity.
Pullman, in particular, had an innate gift for radiating this kind of perpetual cross-purpose, and its flipside, an abundant curiosity, that makes him dazzling in this rare romantic role. At one point, he talks to Lucy about the romantic power of leaning in to a conversation, and these two characcters spend most of the film leaning in to each other, but never quite making contact. They always seem to be meeting at doorways and thresholds, as if another kind of romance is imminent, forming a wonderfully charismatic connection that’s true to the way romance so often begins with a kind of intensified friendship. Bullock is the dramedic actress par excellence, and her taste for cross-purpose goes more in the direction of exhaustion, frazzle, wincing – just recomposing her face in time – but that works beautifully against Pullman’s lean here, creating a genuine to-and-fro, or lean-and-fro, that is utterly entrancing.
By contrast, Peter retreats more and more to the realm of fantasy (or Jack absorbs just enough fantasy) that Lucy’s motivations for sticking to the fiancée story become totally extrinsic. When Peter wakes up, he believes the engagement is true (his doctor assures him he has selective amnesia) for a for a moment Lucy seriously considers marrying him, since he can provide her with a honeymoon and a “stamp on my passport.” It takes the actual wedding ceremony for her to propose to the entire Callaghan family, via Jack, who then shows up at her train booth, with the family in tow, for a reciprocal proposal of his own, as Peter finally fades away. These last scenes beautifully resolve reality and fantasy, not unlike the closing moments in You’ve Got Mail, but even more tremulously and precariously, as Turteltaub and his screenwriters orchestrate a romcom around why we need (to leave) romcoms as a fantasy.