Reel Rumbles #6: “The Notebook” vs. “Sleepless in Seattle”
In This Corner
What if someone you never met, someone you never saw, someone you never knew, was the only someone for you? That’s the question asked by Nora Ephron’s 1993 hit Sleepless in Seattle, which climbs into the Reel Rumbles ring this week to do battle with 2004’s The Notebook, a film that claims that behind every great love is a great story. Are these films promising chick flick classics, or just heavy-handed weepy tear-jerkers going for cheap shots over quality storytelling? Find out as the bell rings for The Notebook vs. Sleepless in Seattle.
Round One: Story
“Don’t mind him. He’s just a man who’s lost his way.” Sam Baldwin’s (Tom Hanks) distant observation about himself following the death of his wife is a good example of what Sleepless in Seattle does so well – subtlety. Sleepless understands the way life works, and for the most part, it employs an even-keeled view of humanity and relationships to produce a story that rings true, even with all its talk of destiny and magic. The only magic that truly exists in Sleepless in Seattle is the magic of the human spirit: how we can find humor in tragedy, belief in despair, and love in the strangest places. The story follows Sam and his son Jonah (Ross Malinger) as they cope with the loss of wife and mother Maggie (Carey Lowell). While Sam seems content to wallow in his misery, Jonah is a proactive young lad, and isn’t ready to see his father drift gently into that good night.
One Christmas Eve, he calls a psychiatrist’s talk radio program to ask for help in getting his father over the hump of sorrow and loneliness. After the doctor – perhaps for selfish reasons – goads Jonah into putting Sam on the phone, a chain reaction of either fate or coincidence leads to the conversation being overheard by Annie Reed, an engaged woman living an entire country away from the caller.
Annie (Meg Ryan) thinks she loves her fiancée but feels none of the passion or impulsiveness that many often feel should accompany the emotion. In other words, Annie is settling. She realizes this the moment she hears Sam’s voice, which demonstrates a love that death has not been able to conquer. But rather than take the revelation and start anew in her own environment, Annie decides it is Sam she wants, and before long, finds herself stalking and tracking him every free moment she has. She hunts him down on the computer, runs a background check to learn more intimate details of his life, and uses her notoriety as a writer to obtain his actual contact information from the radio show that brought them together. She writes to him, along with thousands of other women across the United States, but her letter is the one that catches Jonah’s eye. Meanwhile, Sam tries to start a relationship with a kind-hearted, but obnoxious local woman, only to find Jonah sabotaging him at every turn. The struggle reaches a fever pitch when Jonah runs away to New York on his dad’s credit card with the intention of finding Annie and bringing her and Sam together. Outrageous as this sounds, the story succeeds because the characters are well-written, and only do outlandish things when there is a real need for them to act impulsive, foolish, and downright crazy. Love can do that to people, and Sleepless in Seattle renders it with a seldom-seen authenticity.
In The Notebook, elderly Duke (James Garner) arrives at a nursing home, as he has many times before, to read from a handwritten notebook to female resident Allie (Gena Rowlands), an Alzheimer’s patient, who only knows him as the nice man who reads to her. In reality, Duke is someone much closer: “I am no one special. Just a common man with common thoughts. I’ve led a common life. There are no monuments dedicated to me and my name will soon be forgotten, but in one respect I’ve succeeded as gloriously as anyone who ever lived. I’ve loved another with all my heart and soul and for me that has always been enough.” That someone is Allie. And the importance of this notebook, which along with Duke’s narration, recounts the story of their love, is that each time he reads it, Allie can remember who he is, the veil of the disease lifts, and they can cherish the love they knew once more. Nick Cassavetes’ film, adapted from a novel by Nicholas Sparks, uses a somewhat different approach than its opponent. It bludgeons viewers with the ideal of love. Despite its aspirations for authenticity, it is more fairy tale than Sleepless in Seattle could ever be. That’s because for the entire two-plus hours, we are being told these two love each other – their young selves, their old selves – but are rarely shown it.
The characters in Sleepless never say those three words to one another, and share very little screen time, but they still manage to portray a more convincing relationship that could blossom into the kind of relationship The Notebook wants you to believe in. As a result, this round isn’t even close.
Advantage: Sleepless in Seattle, 10-7.
Round Two: Script
“It was an improbable romance. He was a country boy. She was from the city. She had the world at her feet, while he didn’t have two dimes to rub together.” Improbable romance, maybe. Improbable plot point, hardly. You don’t have to know much about Nicholas Sparks or his novels in general to know what comes next. He falls for her. She falls for him. What little family he probably has will think the world of her. Her parents will disapprove. Sparks’ novel and this film adaptation show no interest in offering up surprises, instead giving viewers a plot lifted directly from a dozen Tim McGraw songs. In contrast, Sleepless in Seattle delivers humor and warmth in its dialogue. Whether it is Sam and Jonah or Annie and Becky (Rosie O’Donnell), the conversations are sharp, witty, and at times poignant. It is mostly a romantic comedy, but the weight of these characters produces more natural drama than Cassavetes is able to wring out of a single character in his film.
Another round for Sleepless: 10-8.
Round Three: Performances
Sleepless in Seattle is a monument to the greater talents of Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. Though the two share very little time, touch, or contact of any kind with one another, they raise the bar for onscreen romantic chemistry. Hanks is particularly likeable as widower Sam. He gets a rare chance to show dramatic chops in addition to his usual good-natured sarcasm that served as the vehicle for much of his earlier comedic talent. Ryan earns her keep as America’s undisputed sweetheart. Watch her caroling in the car just before she happens across that fateful radio program, and try not to fall in love with her. Lending support is a superb cast that includes child actor Malinger, who trades quips with Hanks like a seasoned professional, and a surprisingly tolerable Rosie O’Donnell in the best friend role of Becky to Ryan’s Annie. Add the always likeable Bill Pullman to the mix as Annie’s even more likeable fiancée, and you have a concoction of characters that deserve a happy ending.
The Notebook, on the other hand, is populated by a cast that didn’t have much to work with from the beginning. Garner is usually a solid addition to any performance, but here, he is given clunky material and a breakdown scene that makes one lose almost all respect for him. Rachel McAdams is fine as the younger Allie, and Ryan Gosling adds equitable support as Noah, one of her two loves; the other is Lon, played by James Marsden. None of the performances really get out of hand, but they are definitely not capable of elevating the material.
Another win for Sleepless in Seattle: 10-8.
Round Four: Direction
Entering the final round, Cassavetes clearly needs a knockout to win this Rumble, but he is once again stifled by the seemingly unstoppable Ephron. Her direction is one of the best parts of Sleepless, because she understands the importance of making the audience “wait for it,” using suspense in lieu of trying to create one loud emotional response after another. She makes a film that you can throw your arms around and embrace, while her competition seems to be swinging wildly with punches that never find a home. If romance can be refined to sound, then her soundtrack is the filter for those grains of sand, with classic performances by Jimmy Durante, Louis Armstrong, Harry Connick, Jr., Celine Dion, and Clive Griffin. Mixed with a straight-forward camera style and a just-the-facts approach to storytelling with none of the fluff or emotional fat that seems to clog the arteries of The Notebook, Ephron’s film adds the finishing touches to this lopsided affair to remember.
And the Winner Is…
Sleepless in Seattle – KNOCKOUT.
(Someone call the paramedics.)