While You Were Sleeping (1995): United States – directed by Jon Turteltaub
Rated PG by the MPAA – contains some mild profanity, some mild sexual references, some mild violence, and some extreme contrivances
Rarely do you find a film that is entirely constructed out of coincidental plot contrivances, but While You Were Sleeping might be that rare picture. Not a single element of the story transpires because of anything that a normal person would do; the entire plot is contrived and absurd.
The film is not helped by some awful dialogue. There are maybe five humorous lines in the movie, and some truly awful ones (“I don’t drink anymore. I don’t drink any less, either.”) There is some chemistry between the leads, and Sandra Bullock is likable, but these small bright spots are not enough to save the picture.
While You Were Sleeping begins with Lucy Eleanor Moderatz (Bullock) delivering a short and ultimately pointless monologue about the sad state of her life and some happy times in her past. She soon reveals that she works for the Chicago Transit Authority collecting train fares.
The love of her life is a stranger that passes by every morning, a dark, bushy-eyebrowed man. One fateful day (Christmas Day, actually, since Lucy’s life is so miserable and lonely that she works holidays) Mr. Perfect Stranger passes by and gets mugged on the platform. Lucy rushes forward to help, eventually pulling him out of the way of an oncoming train. She follows him to the hospital, where he remains in a coma, sleeping.
Through a misunderstanding a nurse introduces her to his family as his fiancée. Peter’s (Peter Gallagher) estranged family is excited for him and her, and soon rally around the pair. Another series of misunderstandings brings Lucy into their home for Christmas, with Lucy being sure not to break the movie and tell the truth out of fear for Peter’s grandmother’s ailing heart.
A consistent stream of misunderstandings, convenient interruptions, contrived coincidences, and ridiculous occurrences plague the rest of the story as Lucy soon develops a friendship with Peter’s brother, Jack (Bill Pullman), a carpenter trapped inside the body of an estate furniture salesman. Their relationship undergoes numerous hardships, including irritation from Lucy’s neighbor, Joe Jr. (Michael Rispoli), an overblown Brooklynite living in Chicago. In fact, many of the characters appear to hail from New York, rarely displaying any traits of true Chicagoans. The film was shot in Chicago, fortunately, and the city is allowed to shine in the few exteriors in which it appears.
While You Were Sleeping carefully follows the worst rules of a successful romantic comedy. Everything is carefully planned to ensure that the couple will not be together until the final few minutes of the film, though the ending will never be in doubt. But since Lucy’s initial love interest is in a coma, it takes quite some time before she and Jack share screen time together, thus detracting from the romantic aspect of the film. The comedy likewise fails, with random slapstick scenes and flat jokes.
I can stomach certain romantic comedies, when they are well-constructed and believable. I might occasionally get drawn into the fantasy world of romance when the characters are honest and behave in a manner consistent with actual humans. While You Were Sleeping is not able to rise above the low standards that the genre has set for itself, even if many critical circles consider the film a paragon of romantic comedies. Some romantic comedy fans may enjoy the movie, but lackluster editing and a terrible script and dialogue don’t allow the adequate acting and directing to bolster the film.