Gift of the Mundane
by EMMA BARRIE
While You Were Sleeping
dir. Jon Turtletaub
I have an idea that some men are born out of their due place. Accident has cast them amid certain surroundings, but they have always a nostalgia for a home they know not. Sometimes a man hits upon a place to which he feels he mysteriously belongs. Here is the home he sought, and he will settle among scenes that he has never seen before, among men he has never known, as though they were familiar to him from his birth. Here at last he finds rest.
– W. Somerset Maugham
As a child, movies taught me what it meant to be a real family. Real families only exist in late fall or winter. They must live in New York or Chicago, not in sunny Los Angeles. If you have a real family you will know it, because on Christmas your house will be magically outlined in twinkling lights. Everyone will wear hounds tooth coats and cable knit sweaters, oversized to perfection. You will sip grandma’s much-too-potent eggnog, and talk over each other in a comforting rhythm, perfected by decades of practice. To be a real family, you must have inside jokes, history, layers, and an emotionally charged instrumental score. The camera must pan up and away, over you and your snow-covered, neighborhood street.
For me, the Callahans have always been the perfect family. They remain intact in my mind, even though two members (Peter Boyle and Jack Warden) have since died, or become more famous for other things like their roles on The O.C. (Peter Gallagher and Peter Gallagher’s eyebrows). Their loving and realistic family dynamic was one of many things that separated While You Were Sleeping from every other 90s romantic comedy. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say the cast of the film spent 15 years living together in house on a tree-lined block in preparation for their roles, arguing about what makes a good pot roast and putting together scrapbooks.
Jon Turteltaub's film tells the story of Lucy Moderatz (Sandra Bullock), a lowly orphaned tollbooth operator in Chicago (hey — it could happen) who one day saves a man when he is pushed onto the tracks. At the hospital, while he’s in a coma, his entire family mistakes her for his fiancée. A rom-comedy of errors ensues. Lucy immediately latches onto this family, and while Peter is in a coma, she falls for his hot but relatable furniture-making brother, Jack. You follow?
But While You Were Sleeping isn't just about two people falling in love. The film doesn't leave you with the idea that as long as you find "the one" you'll be set, rather it's about finding your tribe. Lucy doesn't have any family left, and aside from a few work acquaintances, she can't really call anyone a friend. We learn early on that Lucy has been wandering through the world alone and restless, searching for some sort of connection.
Peter remains in a coma for a majority of the film, and Lucy, as his phony fiancée, is invited to every family holiday event. On Christmas, the Callahans plus Lucy sit around the tree opening presents, and Lucy is given hers. She doesn't expect to get a gift, nor does she care what's inside. The fact that she was given one is enough. She cradles her wrapped present, watching as everyone else exchanges theirs. They rip open wrapping, drown each other in hugs, and exhibit genuine excitement about mundane gifts like mittens or a cordless glue gun.
Lucy couldn’t be happier. She's finally found what she’s been looking for. The camera pans away and we see that on the fireplace, a new stocking with Lucy’s name has been hung. The initiation has begun.
I realize the risk of talking about this movie to someone who hasn’t seen it is that Lucy comes off sounding like a creep. "No no, you don't understand, she just pretends to be a coma patient's fiancée for a few weeks so that she can infiltrate his family! …Oh."
But Saul (Jack Warden), the Callahan’s neighbor and the kids' godfather, is there to sanction the lie. Like Lucy, Saul is not blood-related to the Callahans, yet he belongs with them. When Saul discovers the truth early on — that Lucy was never engaged to Peter — he confronts her. Though she is immediately apologetic and says she will come clean to the whole family immediately, he tells her not to confess. As one outsider to another, he says, "They need you, Lucy. Just like you need them."
Jack, Peter's brother, is played by the most charming guy in the world (I took a poll), Bill Pullman. Clad in light Levi’s and workman’s boots, his hair in a perfect swoop like a bird’s wing caressing his forehead, Jack is a 90s dream man. He even builds rocking chairs, owns two different trucks, and you can practically see the calluses on his hands. He knows just how to banter (Lucy: "You don’t have to walk behind me." Jack: "I'm blocking the wind!"), makes eye contact with her in crowded rooms, and mutters "I doubt it" under his breath when she says she’s not photogenic. He is the perfect first love for any pre-teen. And Lucy is the perfect role model.
Sandra Bullock, in her best role ever — forget that Oscar win for The Blind Side — plays loveable, vulnerable and tough all rolled into one big bundle of knitted sweaters. As Jack says to his coma-ridden brother, "She drives you so nuts you don't know whether to hug her or, or just really arm wrestle her." The answer is, of course, both. In every scene, Lucy follows the dress code of adorable frumpy casual. Her hair is so perfectly messy, her dead father’s coat hangs off her narrow shoulders, her fingerless gloves make her look like she’s about to rob Kevin McCallister’s house.
Watching this movie in your adolescence, hoping for connections to people that don’t yet know you exist, Lucy has lines that feel like they were written specifically for you. She asks a still-asleep Peter, “Have you ever, like, seen somebody? And you knew that, if only that person really knew you, they would, well, they would of course dump the perfect model that they were with, and realize that you were the one that they wanted to, just, grow old with.” I think I have that scribbled in margins of notebooks somewhere.
Not only is she likable and human, Lucy is resilient. In fact, she’s kind of a badass. To the untrained rom-com eye, she may seem like a pathetic and spinstery lady who dips Oreos into her cat’s milk bowl. But the truth is, Lucy doesn’t crave pity. Her parents died and she works in a tollbooth. I would pity her if she asked for it. But for Christmas, she gets her own tree and pulls it up through her apartment window with a rope. Sure, the rope breaks and the tree crashes through someone else’s window, but she’s doing it. While we want Lucy to get out of the tollbooth and visit Florence like she’s always dreamed, we don’t ever really feel sorry for her. She doesn’t whine about the lack of stamps in her passport. She never succumbs to going on a date with the tenacious and obnoxious Joe Jr. — the landlord’s son who asks her out relentlessly. If she really felt sorry for herself and was so depressed about being alone, she would have gone to the Ice Capades with him years ago. Lucy is one tough cookie, not some helpless waif.
Watching Lucy and Jack fall in love is an absolute pleasure. (That’s what I would have written on their report cards if I was their fourth grade teacher and they were falling in love before my eyes. An absolute pleasure.) Unlike most rom-coms of its time, While You Were Sleeping lacks the Motown montage. We don’t see them repaint a room or bike ride on the boardwalk or go into a lot of stores and try on outfits. Instead we see them gradually fall in love one night as Jack walks Lucy home along the water. We hear the jokes they make, and the conversation that endears them to one another. Then we see them slip and slide across an icy path, because what is a rom-com without some physical love-humor?
While You Were Sleeping was written by Daniel G. Sullivan and Fredric LeBow, both who only have the one credit to their names. Most mornings, I consider writing them a letter. I want to know what they’re doing now. I want to know if they’ve written other things as touching and perfect, but for whatever reason every studio has passed. I want to know if they quit the biz after While You Were Sleeping because they told the story they needed to tell, and then decided to become carpenters or school teachers. Most importantly, I want to know if they want to collaborate with me on a variety of projects.
As a tribute to those dialogue-geniuses, I will leave here this lovely family dinner scene, transcribed, forever immortalizing it on this webpage:
Elsie: I could never make a good pot roast.
Saul: You need good beef. Argentina has great beef. Beef and Nazis.
Ox: John Wayne was tall.
Saul: Dustin Hoffman was 5’6″.
Ox: Would you want to see Dustin Hoffman save the Alamo?
Midge: These mashed potatoes are so creamy.
Saul: Spain has good beef.
Midge: Mary mashed them.
Saul: Cesar Romero was tall.
Elsie: Cesar Romero was not Spanish!
Saul: I didn't say Cesar Romero was Spanish.
Elsie: Well, what did you say?
Saul: I said, Cesar Romero was tall.
Elsie: We all know he’s tall.
Saul: Well, that’s what I said. Cesar Romero was tall. That’s all I said.
Towards the end of the film, Lucy admits to the Callahans she was never Peter's fiancée, but instead kept up the act because she fell in love with Jack and, more importantly, she fell in love with the entire family. "I went from being all alone to being a fiancée, a daughter, a granddaughter, a sister, and a friend," she says through tears.
It is possible the first time I saw the film, I thought the Callahans might never forgive her. But watching it now, I know they have to — and not because the film is formulaic or because it needs a happy ending. I know Lucy will be forgiven because I have come to know this family, and I have learned how strong their bond to Lucy has become. Saul is right: they do need her, just as much as she needs them.
In the last scene of the film, Jack shows up at the train station to propose, slipping a ring into the token slot. In the spirit of the movie and in the spirit of the family, all the Callahans join in, a gesture sure to convince Lucy she is forgiven. With hearts made of gold and full of warm hot chocolate, they all crowd around the token booth, instructing Jack on how to propose. "Lucy, I have to ask you something," Jack says in a voice so gravelly and rugged you’re just waiting for his muscles to pop through his Gap denim-lined jacket.
The peanut gallery pipes up from behind: "Get down on one knee, it’s more romantic." "He’s proposing, let him do it." "I am letting him do it." Lucy, in true Lucy fashion, places the ring on the tip of her index finger, inspiring lonely middle school girls everywhere to take note in their diaries of what adorable gesture to someday mimic.
Halfway through While You Were Sleeping, Lucy’s boss Jerry chastises her, "You’re born into a family. You do not join them like you do the Marines!" But the film proves otherwise. It proves that if you are wandering the world feeling restless or alone, it's possible, as Maugham said, to come upon a place where you "mysteriously belong." As a lost and misplaced adolescent, I never tired of watching the film. Never tired of the pot roast, the chatter, the reassurance. Yes, we have a place in the universe and yes, when we find it, there will be people waiting to welcome us home.
Emma Barrie is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Brooklyn. She twitters here and tumbls here. She last wrote in these pages about her heirlooms. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here.
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