Ever fallen in love with someone you haven’t even talked to?
Ever spent the night talking to a man in a coma?
Loneliness and belonging are at the heart of While you were Sleeping which is probably one of the reasons it is such a quintessential Christmas movie. The other reason of course is that it is set in the Christmas season and showcases beautiful, thematically decorated city-scapes and home-interiors.
The protagonist Lucy Eleanor Moderatz isn’t anything in particular. Not particularly successful or accomplished or even very good-looking- she looks something like a cross between an orphan in the street (all that insistence on wearing her father’s oversized, ill-fitting winter coat) and a drowned rat (all those awful, skimpy woolen hats with her hair sticking out in a draggled way underneath it). The rest of the time she’s dressed a little like the furniture in the Calaghan’s living room- which by the way is a great hearkening back to Victorian decor and is also a pretty good setting for a very Victorian, very consumerist, over-stuffed Christmas. If you notice the wallpaper too (don’t get distracted by Jack sitting down next to the wall), it’s got little Dickensian men all over it, amusingly enough.
I catch the symbolic meaning of Lucy’s clothes now though: Lucy is an orphan.That is, although she only lost her father when she was already an adult, he was the only parent/family she knew. She holds on to him by still wearing his coat which is too big for her and visually intensifies her slightness and when you notice it, her alone-ness in the world. Jack Callaghan, the brother she wasn’t supposed to fall in love with, is the one who asks her about it in slightly different words- Oh, your coat’s too big for you-It was my dad’s…(sub-text:she’s entirely alone, the only coat she owns is a reminder of her dead father).
Roger Ebert points out how the Callaghans move as one unit. They do make a great ensemble. Key moments have them all chiming in like instruments in an orchestra. To the surgeon’s shrill, protesting squeak-You can’t come bursting into this unit–Ox’ s (Mr.Callaghan) voice booms in response —That’s my son! Following soon on that is Mrs. Callaghan’s wail –On Christmas Day! At the family dinner Lucy and Jack exchange understanding looks over the silverware as the family play their parts in full strength —These mashed potatoes are so creamy …so very mashed —that’s Mrs. Callaghan providing a chorus that weaves in and out– I didn’t say Ricky Ricardo was Cuban–Well then what did you say? I said Ricky Ricardo was tall— Saul and Midge gently squabbling in the foreground, what could they be? The ting ting ting of the triangle? Saul again, this time bringing in the heavier beat Argentina has great beef…beef and Natzis.
They’re great, really. All of them.
When Lucy and Jack are off away together long enough to fall in love the whole city is lit up just for them. There’s no one else in the streets and Chicago is empty except for lovers (there’s another pair sucking face under a lamp post, just as Jack and Lucy pass by). They walk home in the snow and into a piece of comedy as they slip on the ice near her building- sweetly trying to hold each other up but ending in a sprawl on the pavement with Jack Callaghan ripping the back pocket right off his jeans and walking home under Lucy’s amused but very taken gaze.
If you’re looking for morals, this movie will seem to cater to Hollywood’s most obvious rule: Prince Charming is the hands-on carpenter brother in denim, wearing old, brown, creased boots, not the high-flying lawyer brother with classic good looks, double breasted suits, and iffy morals. If you put obvious morals aside though, you can absorb so much more than just sentiment and truism.
Finally, on setting and colour. I love Lucy’s apartment. It’s all solid, earthy, rooted, browns and occasional dainty creams and suits her to a T. Jack looks great in it. Peter would never fit in-his minimalist, white, glass and metal digs is alright for him and Ashley Bartlett-Bacon (I will never get over that name) but Lucy looks out of place the minute she walks in. At the family dinner Saul and Ox are in conservative greys, Midge a sparkly gadfly of a older lady and a subversive, dainty grandmother is in grey-green and the “kids” Jack, Lucy and of course the kid-sister Mary all match in soothing, muted, olive greens.
My favourite lines and favourite scene in this movie is when Jack is talking to his unconscious brother:
´Member in like, uh, fifth or sixth grade, l was starting to get really good at poker, and, uh, goin´ home with lots of lunch money? l got to know the principal´s office really well. He always used to say to me, ´´How come you can´t be more like your brother Peter?´´ Well, you know what? l was all right with that. l had no problems with that because l was proud of you. And l was never envious of anything that you had. Until now. l´ll cut the deck. High card gets Lucy.
The wide, still, vulnerable look in Bill Pullman’s eyes catches me up each time. It amps up into an intensity of expectation for the next line–High card gets Lucy–. He switches into a sweetly, comic look of mischief as he pretends to take this joke quite seriously. When he loses immediately, the dramatic tension is released and not willing to be satisfied with his luck (or lack of it), he decides to go through the mundanity of effort, the last line in this scene is —Okay we’ll go best out of three.
The light plays on Jack’s face all through this scene and it just strengthens the sense that he is baring his soul and confessing his secrets. He can’t hide from us in this scene, it’s a coming to terms with his feelings.
So much to look at and so much to engage with, but people still negate romantic comedies, more for their genre than for the quality of the individual movie. I realize that this type of movie may not re-write the rules of perception and that its strength is that it plays to type, but I can’t help enjoying it.
Update: Re-watching this and (while women don’t need to be good-looking) she is pretty, (the character Lucy not Sandra Bullock) when she gets rid of those hats. But it just emphasizes my point that the style is very Little Orphan Girl in the Big World wearing hand-me-downs and cast-off clothes. At one point- walking home with Jack- she has a cloth bag over her shoulder-she isn’t very far off from an archaic visual of a teenage runaway- setting off with her possessions in a handkerchief.
I keep having to add updates to this post, because I keep remembering lines and scenes that I’d like to hold and hug like a tangible thing. Almost every scene seems to simply make this movie. Joe Junior is fat and also owns clothes that are too small to fit (Lucy totally judges him. Why? All her stuff is too big to fit.) and has an unsophisticated mind and voice (playing to type much?), but even he stops being so commonplace, and it comes out of the blue I could move in here he says huskily, I bet you Papa’d knock 50 bucks of the rent most pathetically (sub-text: If I paid you, would you live with me? For a price would you love me?). Ahh, I’m butter in the hands of a skillful actor. Or maybe I just really like an Aristotlian catharsis.
Okay, really finally, Peter out of his coma is hilarious. I never noticed that he was getting married in a blazer draped over his hospital pajamas. Or that he involuntarily uses Lucy’s full name to propose to her, presumably because he remembers it from when she was talking to him when he was unconscious which is a great nod back to the beginning of the movie. The entire proposal is a masterpiece of comedy through the high tone of Peter’s proposal and his fuzzy grasp of what is actually going on. We notice immediately that it’s really more about Peter than it is about Lucy. He’s still so self-centered he doesn’t notice that even when he thinks he’s proposing to someone else he’s still just thinking about himself. But she can’t be swept away by the shallow romance (a high-cultural reference like”La Rue du Faubourg, Saint Honore” doesn’t mean anything to Lucy personally, and proposals should at the very least be relevant to the person proposed to). Humour is in the reception of the proposal by the suggestible people in the room -Peter’s ward mate helps him along with explaining the proposal to Lucy and the duty-nurse faints because she can’t take the drama anymore.
Peter: You know what? Facing death makes a man evaluate his life. And l´ve been thinkin´ about mine, and l haven´t liked what l´ve seen. l´ve seen a man who has courtside tickets to the Bulls, a, a lucrative investment portfolio, an apartment on La Rue du Faubourg, Saint Honore. Lucy: Where?
Ward Mate: Paris. Peter: But l´ve also seen a man who has no one to trust. No one to want to have a son with. You were there when l needed someone the most. You gave me a second chance at life. Took a coma to wake me up. My family loves ya. l might as well love you. Lucy Eleanor Moderatz, will you marry me?