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Sandra Bullock became a rom-com star with a cozy love story about crushing loneliness

Sandra Bullock became a rom-com star with a cozy love story about crushing loneliness
Photo: Moviepix (Getty Images)
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Lucy Moderatz (Sandra Bullock) spends her days behind a glass window in a Chicago Transit Authority booth and her nights home alone with her cat. On the surface, it sounds like the setup for the worst kind of stereotypical rom-com heroine desperate for love. In practice, however, 1995’s While You Were Sleeping paints a refreshingly honest portrait of the painful reality of urban loneliness. Unlike rom-coms that center on romance for romance’s sake, While You Were Sleeping roots the idea of dating and marriage in what it actually is for many people: a way to start, join, or blend a family. That thoughtful emotional core is even more impressive considering it comes from a movie about a woman who pretends to be a coma patient’s fiancée.

The plot kicks off because Lucy doesn’t have any family to spend Christmas with. She was raised by a single dad who recently died after a protracted illness, and she’s been working all the major holidays ever since. Because she’s at her CTA token-taker job on Christmas Day, she’s there when handsome lawyer/object of her daydreams Peter Callaghan (Peter Gallagher) gets mugged and falls onto the train tracks. She rescues him and follows him to the hospital, where she discovers he’s got the kind of big, bustling family she’s always dreamed about. That—coupled with the convenient plot device of a grandma with a stress-induced heart problem—motivates Lucy to go along with it when a nurse mistakenly identifies her as Peter’s fiancée. Lucy may have fantasized about Peter from her afar, but her actual love story starts with his family.

One year after her big breakthrough in Speed, While You Were Sleeping made Sandra Bullock a full-on movie star. She drew comparisons to Julia Roberts’ breakout turn in Pretty Woman, earned a Golden Globe nomination, and established herself as one of the rom-com genre’s biggest players. You can tell right from her casually delivered opening narration that Bullock is doing something special with the role. She balances Lucy’s timidity and insecurity with the competence and independence of someone who’s learned to rely on herself. Lucy isn’t presented as a one-note sad sack or someone who thinks she’s unlovable. There’s a streak of optimism to her, and she’s got close friends at work. Her landlord even likes her well enough to cheerily forgive her when she accidentally smashes a Christmas tree through his window. Lucy has just fallen through the cracks a bit when it comes to creating a core group around which to anchor her life, especially during the holidays.

It’s impossible not to like Lucy, which is key for the plot and for getting the audience on her side. Screenwriters Daniel G. Sullivan and Fredric Lebow originally envisioned While You Were Sleeping as a direct riff on Sleeping Beauty, with a woman in the coma and a man sneaking his way into her life. A gender-flipped version was deemed less predatory, and the movie does as much as possible to further mitigate the creepiness of the setup—including regularly deploying Randy Edelman’s bouncing score to keep things light.

It helps that Lucy is the gentlest, most nonthreatening person in the world, which you can tell from just a glance at her knitwear-filled wardrobe. Elle dubbed Lucy’s aesthetic “a visual mood board for the concept of staying in bed all day.” At one point she wears a sweater so big she can literally hide a Christmas present in the sleeve. In an especially refreshing touch, Lucy is never subjected to a self-actualizing makeover montage that takes her out of her sweats. In the world of While You Were Sleeping, coziness is a plus.

Lucy’s gentle lovability means she soon finds an ally in the Callaghans’ family friend Saul (a wonderful Jack Warden), who learns her secret and decides not to rat her out. That’s another thing that softens Lucy’s deception. Saul is protective of the Callaghans, but he understands the pain of Lucy’s loneliness too. The family took him in as one of their own after his wife of 51 years died. It’s a little grace note that acknowledges romance and marriage aren’t the only ways to build a new family unit, even if that’s ultimately the shape that Lucy’s story is going to take.

In a world where in-laws so often get a bad rap, While You Were Sleeping is the most loving tribute you could find to them. Having previously helmed broad family comedies like 3 Ninjas and Cool Runnings, director Jon Turteltaub finds buoyant heart and humor in his depiction of the Callaghans—who include bullish dad Ox (Peter Boyle), warm mom Midge (Micole Mercurio), sweet kid sister Mary (Monica Keena), and kooky grandma Elsie (Glynis Johns). We see the Callaghans in the warm light in which Lucy sees them. In her eyes, their hilariously confused dinner table crosstalk about celebrity heights and Latin American vacation destinations is as sweet as any conventional portrait of domestic bliss. It’s a sequence that undoubtedly resonants for anyone from a similarly boisterous family—ditto for the scene where Ox and his son Jack (Bill Pullman) argue their way through a Catholic mass without missing a single “amen” in the process.

The poster and trailer give away the fact that Jack is Lucy’s real true love, but in the movie itself that’s a bit of a rug pull. Pullman doesn’t appear until a full 30 minutes in and there’s not much teasing his character beforehand. In fact, a sweet scene in which Lucy visits Peter’s hospital room in the middle of the night seems to suggest they’re our modern-day fairy tale couple. Instead, While You Were Sleeping uses its two brothers to tell a story of romantic fantasy versus. romantic reality. Lucy idolizes Peter from afar without realizing he’s actually vain and morally dubious. (Gallagher doesn’t have a ton of non-coma screentime, but he’s absolutely hilarious at capturing Peter’s cheerful narcissism.) In getting to actually know Jack, Lucy finds her ideal match, even if he might not have the same dashing swagger as his brother.

Two years after playing “the baxter” in Sleepless In Seattle, Pullman finally got to put his understated charms to full use in another sleep-related rom-com. It was his one big go as a romantic leading man before rebranding himself as America’s favorite alien-fighting president in Independence Day the following year. While Pullman isn’t necessarily a performer with a huge range, contrasting his performances in Sleepless In Seattle, Independence Day, and While You Were Sleeping is a great case study in the subtle work actors can do in crafting distinct characters out of similar building blocks. In While You Were Sleeping, Pullman projects a sense of decency and working-class practicality that makes him incredibly appealing. He’s smart enough to doubt Lucy’s made-up story and humble enough to apologize when he’s in the wrong. Like Bullock, Pullman makes Jack feel like a real person despite the heightened plot swirling around these characters.

Like The Wedding Singer, While You Were Sleeping understands how charming and romantic it is to watch two nice people make each other laugh and enjoy spending time together. The film’s highpoint is a sequence where Lucy and Jack drop off a couch at Peter’s apartment and then walk home together along the Chicago River. While You Were Sleeping was originally set in Brooklyn, which is why Lucy’s lecherous neighbor—easily the film’s least successful thread—is such a New York Italian caricature. Other than that weird holdover, however, the switch to Chicago gives the movie a wonderfully distinct personality. Jack and Lucy spend their walk discussing their coats and slipping on ice, thus making it the most realistic Chicago date imaginable (despite the actual miles-long distance between downtown and Lucy’s apartment). While You Were Sleeping understands that Christmas in Chicago is both twinklingly beautiful and hellishly cold.

Particularly around this time of year, While You Were Sleeping is a nice low-key complement to the Christmas movies that burst forth with heavy-handed cheer. It emphasizes the coziness of winter more than the specifics of the holiday season. Despite being inexplicably released in April, that unique tone helped While You Were Sleeping connect with audiences in a big way. It made $81 million domestically and $182 million worldwide, and has continued to be a cable staple ever since. Curiously, however, it remains the only script by Sullivan and Lebow ever produced. Turteltaub, meanwhile, stayed put in the family-friendly Disney mold for a while before eventually moving onto action adventures like National Treasure and The Meg.

Perhaps because of the serendipity of its creation, While You Were Sleeping feels like it stands slightly apart from the ’90s rom-com boom and the Christmas movie genre, even though it’s very much a part of both. It’s a happy movie that acknowledges the holidays can be a sad time for a lot of people. “You have no idea what it’s like to be alone,” Lucy says at one point, not about dating in particular, just about her life in general. Though loneliness has reportedly been on the rise in recent years, it’s a topic people are still often uncomfortable talking about openly. While You Were Sleeping uses its goofy central premise to reach out a sympathetic hand to anyone struggling with isolation. The coma may be a gimmick, but Lucy’s arc never feels like one.

Next time: The Holiday offers two rom-coms for the price of one.