Hello, everyone! If we think of movies as fossils, with each film capturing a snapshot of a time period’s collective consciousness, then watching an old movie is a little bit like being a cultural paleontologist. This weekend I went on a cinematic dig of my own and watched While You Were Sleeping, a 1995 romantic-comedy starring Sandra Bullock and Bill Pullman. After watching this “feel-good film” about a woman who pretends to be the fiancée of a comatose man, I was once again struck by the realization that there was something very strange happening in the 1990s. Something was in the water, folks, something that hopefully never makes a comeback.
Synopsis: Lonely Chicago transit worker Lucy yearns for a meaningful relationship, and spends her days at her job pining after a handsome stranger named Peter Callaghan. When Peter falls on the train tracks, Lucy risks her life to save him, and follows him to the hospital, where a nurse confuses her for Peter’s fiancée. The lie soon spirals out of control, as Peter’s warmhearted family absorbs Lucy into their fold, and Lucy is hesitant to lose their kindness. When Jack, Peter’s brother, comes home for Christmas, he is initially suspicious of Lucy, but soon starts developing romantic feelings for her.
My thoughts: The only unimpeachably “good” things in While You Were Sleeping are Sandra Bullock and Bill Pullman, two actors whose middle-America charisma and tangible romantic chemistry save this movie from being more painfully uncomfortable than it already is. Sandra Bullock’s Lucy embodies what I’ve come to think of as the “90’s girl heroine,” a woman who is independent enough to live on her own and have her own career, but whose life is still woefully unfulfilled without the presence of a man. The paradoxes of this character provide much of the movie’s awkward tension, as mealy-mouthed Lucy stands up to her boss when he asks her to work Christmas, but can’t find the strength to tell the truth to Peter’s family, or to defend herself against Jack’s accusations and jealousy. To watch Lucy is to see a woman caught between the traditional and modern ideals of the American woman, with no ability to lie firmly in either camp. Even though her character accurately captures the tensions of the time, it’s nevertheless frustrating to watch.
Jack, too, is a man caught between two identities. On the one hand, he’s a modern man who is sensitive enough to show vulnerability to his romantic partner. On the other hand, he’s still restricted by the boundaries of traditional masculinity, and spends an irritating amount of time in the film judging Lucy for normal interactions with other men. Bill Pullman has enough charm to make Jack’s casual slut-shaming edge more to the side of over-protectiveness, but even his likability doesn’t erase the fact that Jack’s role in the film is to “complete” Lucy. It’s Jack who ends up taking Lucy to Florence on their honeymoon and fulfilling her childhood dream of international travel. Despite Lucy meeting the superficial requirements of independence, she is still requires a man’s assistance to achieve her goals.
If Lucy and Jack’s romance is built on a shoddy foundation, the film’s emotional core is even shakier. Lucy’s lie is the rotten center that ends up corrupting the whole movie. While at first her pretense is played off as a classic example of miscommunication, her inability to confess, especially as she grows closer and closer to Peter’s family, starts feeling less like a string of cutesy hijinks and more like a sign of deep desperation and moral vacancy. There are several instances in the film where Lucy has a chance to remove herself from the situation without harming anyone further, and yet Lucy keeps coming back to continue the ruse. The film tries several tactics to make us sympathize with Lucy. First, it portrays her as a kind-hearted, but lonely person with no close family or friends. Second, it makes it seem like Lucy’s lies are necessary by revealing that Peter’s grandmother has a heart condition that might result in a heart attack if she undergoes any sudden shocks. And third, it uses Lucy’s lie as a vehicle to bring Peter’s family closer together, which turns Lucy’s lie into an act of charity that does more kindness than harm.
These tactics only succeed in While You Were Sleeping because the movie is bathed in the glow of a Christmas-themed romantic comedy. As soon as you think for more than one second about the emotional and ethical repercussions of Lucy’s actions, she seems less like a lovable heroine and more like a creep. By assuming the identity of Peter’s fiancée, Lucy gets the reward of a loving and trusting family without having to give that same love and trust in return. She befriends his entire family while he’s comatose, basically inserting herself into his life without his knowledge or consent. What’s most galling is that she plays along with the family’s attempt to convince Peter that he has selective amnesia after he wakes up from his coma and remembers everyone but Lucy. Even though this is played off as another hilarious example of Lucy being a doormat, it shows the real harm caused by Lucy’s lies. Her lack of agency is frustrating, but her willingness to gaslight an innocent person in order to keep her hold on his family borders on frightening. If the sexes were reversed, this would be considered a psychological thriller. In fact, Hollywood already made a movie with this exact scenario. Funny how when you eliminate the Christmas lights and jokes, the true horror of the situation is revealed.
The underlying unpleasantness of the film’s core conceit reveals itself in other ways, too. For one thing, the Callaghan’s family dynamic comes across as more excruciatingly awkward than lovable, and it’s hard to understand why Lucy would even want to be involved with them. Perhaps it’s a generational thing, but the Callaghans reminded me of Charlie Bucket’s crotchety grandparents, and I didn’t find them to be very funny. Then there’s Joe Jr., Lucy’s upstairs neighbor who is determined to date her despite her clear disinterest, and whose boorish behavior seems like a caricature, rather than a real character. The movie is filled with these over-the-top unlikable characters, with voices of reason being few and far between. The script itself also shifts wildly in tone, with scenes of Lucy desperately attempting to maintain her lies juxtaposed against rosy vignettes of Lucy and Jack strolling through the city. Bullock and Pullman have such crazy good chemistry that it seems criminal to bury their romantic arc under all this psychological mess. And even though I liked their romantic scenes, and find Bill Pullman to be incredibly adorable, watching this movie left me feeling icky. It even reminded me of Never Been Kissed, another 1990s romantic comedy which romanticized the idea of lying for love. Even if Lucy and Jack are cute as can be, their relationship is built on lies, and the movie completely avoids tackling the after-effect of these lies. In the end, Jack proposes to Lucy, all is forgiven, and everyone lives happily ever after.
Ultimately, While You Were Sleeping is a film too torn by conflicting ideas to be coherent. On one layer, the movie exists in the Hollywood world of yore, where marriage is the ultimate goal, and in another layer, it exists in the gritty reality of the 1990s, where women everywhere were starting to question whether traditional married life was even worth trying to achieve. Lucy’s disconnection from society and her inability to form meaningful relationships could have formed the basis for a much meatier story than the one While You Were Sleeping is interested in telling. Instead, the movie wants to romanticize the idea that all’s fair in love and war, resulting in a movie that’s far from heartwarming. But maybe I’m just a grinch. If anyone has married the woman who pretended to be engaged to their comatose brother and are still going strong, please write in with your stories.