Let me have Netflix introduce this movie to y’all: “Sandra Bullock plays a transit worker who rescues a handsome commuter, then pretends to be the comatose man’s fiancée while falling for his brother”. If that sounds at all insane, it’s because it is.
I was 9 years old when While You Were Sleeping came out and I loved it. At the time the film didn’t seem sinister or strange in the slightest bit – there was the completely ordinary could-never-stop-traffic-with-her-beauty-ever-honest Sandra Bullock in the midst of a slightly psychotic stalking episode, just having a laugh with her pretend fiancée’s family and falling in L-U-V. It was a cuddly, whimsical modern fairy tale with a happy ending and plenty of ‘can you believe all these crazy characters!? Whoa! Who writes this masterpiece?!’ comedy.
When I revisited the movie over twelve years later in the midst of a deep, tumultuous depression, I was horrified to discover that the film was actually menacing as hell. A tenaciously sentimental hour and a half of undiluted, disturbed romantic gestures that read like Valentines Day cards designed by serial killers in solitude. It presents a character set of screw ups, loners and ‘oddballs’ so detached from reality and so obsessed with the idea of true fantastical and impossible love that everyone seems happy enough to fabricate it if they have to.
If nothing else this movie finally got me out of my self imposed duvet Bell Jar that day and made me think, ‘Well fuck me, at least I’m not that insane’.
And so, of course While You Were Sleeping has since become my all time favourite Stalker Rom-Com – a genre which wholeheartedly deserves it’s own sub-category on Netflix alone. Like many failures of the rom-com genre (although I’m loathe to call While You Were Sleeping a failure, especially since I secretly – or not secretly now – love it to fucking death), it’s loosely based on a fairy tale. This time it’s (d’uh!) Sleeping Beauty.
It’ll come as a surprise to nobody to learn that this movie was initially written with a dude in mind for Sandy Bullock’s character, and a woman in the role as the comatose, submissive wife-to-be. The studios – astute as ever – wrote that idea off as being too ‘predatory’ for an audience to enjoy, and so after a few rewrites the roles got reversed and Hollywood paid out. Now we have Sandy B as Prince Charming and The O.C’s Sandy Cohen (may Peter Gallagher never go by another name. I love you Papa Cohen. You AND your bagels) as the ‘Beauty’ who needs saving.
Now, let’s just back this ass up a second here: the studios thought that a comatose woman – a ‘sleeping beauty’ – being pursued by a man who was illegitimately laying claim to her honour whilst not even awake was ‘too predatory’? Is this not the same fairy tale that billions of little girls have grown up with and daydreamed about? That’s some just plain wrong shit right there. And then we also have Snow White (and I’m totally just cringing off the Disney version of these stories here) who was kept in a glass coffin and also pursued, saved and smooched by a dude she’s never even met before.
Stalking is implicit in the very roots of what we consider to be ‘romantic’ and true love. The message we’re all spoon fed is that to be a noble human worthy of love you need to endlessly pursue the object of your affections, no matter how unattainable (or asleep? Or possibly even dead!), fight all of their enemies and your competition (without the consent of your possibly unconscious lover cos, like, nobody could be better for them than you!) and then you win the other human forever and ever and swap saliva and make babies and buy cars together and stuff. LOVE.
So anyway, first things first – Sandra Bullock plays that most irksome of characters: the crazy, loner cat woman. Her character (Lucy) is apparently so unremarkable and ordinary that even the hot dog vendor she goes to every single day for lunch doesn’t even remember her. Her parents are dead. She has no husband, no boyfriend, no circle of pals, she doesn’t even have a Dildo called Derek. She just has her job at the train station, her opinionated boss, her sleazy, borderline offensive Irish-American-stereotype landlord and her cat. Sucks to be Sandra Bullock.
Except, hold up a second: Sandra Bullock is gorgeous as hell. It really doesn’t matter how many oversized jumpers, jeans, overalls and hats you put her in, that woman is a stud. The very notion that she is so deprived of romantic attention, so desperate for love, so needy for anyone that she might need to invent a relationship in her head, is ludicrous. I think we’ve all known at least one woman in our time as knockout-beautiful as Sandra Bullock and there’s no way that she could even make it through an hour of sitting behind that station kiosk without getting propositioned by at least one eligible suitor.
But no. Lucy gets her only daily deposit of joy from the fleeting second that Peter Callahan (played by Sandy Cohen / Peter Gallagher) comes through her station, pays her no attention in the slightest bit and then walks away. Yowza. Her spank bank must be spilling with that kind of material. Luckily for Lucy though she gets to work the Christmas Day shift (because she has no family to spend it with so it’s no big deal, right? Who needs a union) and since justice never sleeps and Peter is a hot-shot Lawyer he also works on Christmas Day.
But then – TRAGEDY! Peter gets pushed onto the tracks by a pack of street thugs! Who – just so you know – are possibly the worst movie ‘thugs’ ever, simply complimenting his coat in an aggressive manner before stroking his scarf a little too forcefully and knocking him off the platform. He’s obviously knocked unconscious AND there’s a train due so Lucy jumps down and saves his life. It’s a bona fide goddamn Christmas miracle.
We all know what happens from here. Obsessive, masturbatory, sticky fingered, psychotic fantasy true love, y’all. And it isn’t just Lucy who’s inventing forced attempts at romance, either. Everyone in this fucking thing is deluded. There’s stalkers and lunatics EVERYWHERE.
Take for instance the nurse at the hospital who is so smitten with the idea that a woman couldn’t just be a hero and save a blokes life, but that there needs to be some kind of romantic back story there to make it in any way valid: And BAM! She tells everyone that they’re actually engaged (nice one, lady).
Or, Joe Jnr – just a typically horrendous Irish-American working class stereotype fresh outta prison and into the dating game who technically can’t be stalking Lucy since he lives in the same building as her but harasses her daily for dates and sniffs her shoe collection all the same.
And then we have Jack Callahan – brother of the comatose beauty – who quickly and haplessly falls in love with Lucy to the frightening extent that he’s soon actually loitering outside her apartment just so he can ‘bump’ into her (ah! The classic – I just so happened to be right outside your front door trick) and bumbling along to parties that he’s not even invited to.
It’s makes me think that Mark Zuckerberg probably had this film playing in the background of his Harvard dorm room when that first lightbulb of inspiration blew above his head and he thought ‘You know, the World really needs something that can take all the effort out of having to physically stalk people you’re slightly obsessed with’.
I mean, just stop for a second and take a minute to think just how many rom-coms of the 90s (so many of which could easily be classified as being of the ‘Stalker’ ilk) would not have existed with the presence of something like Facebook around. While You Were Sleeping would have been easily solved by Lucy merely doing some obsessive online detective work into Peter Callahan, hunting down his profile page, and stalking him from the safety of her home Wi-Fi connection.
She would have realised how unsettlingly narcissistic he is (seriously, there’s a scene where she looks through his wallet to find not one but two professional portraits of himself wedged in there as well as another scene where the only framed photo in his apartment is of himself) and would have moved on, completely repulsed, with her life.
Maybe somewhere on his profile page she might have stumbled upon the real deal: his brother Jack, played by inexplicable 90s dreamboat Bill Pullman, and there the real love story could have really taken place wherein Jack and Lucy fall in love and she still gets to have all the same screwball encounters with his eccentric extended family and awkward social faux pas, right before the two move in together where he discovers some troublesome internet history on her computer directing him to all the times Lucy was actually stalking his brother. Now there’s a love story for the ages.
The fact that Lucy was kind of grimly obsessed with his brother to the point of pretending to be his fiancée doesn’t ever seem to upset Jack. No! It’s just another piece of kindling on those fiery embers of love, because at the end of the movie they actually get married (on a train, of course!) and we don’t ever have to see the future arguments where Jack gets drunk and aggressively insinuates that his wife is still totally in love with his asshole brother. I don’t know about anyone else, but that’s the kind of shit I like to see in a movie: Real Talk as R-Kelly would put it. We really missed out on some Before Midnight levels of realness right there.
The casting of Bill Pullman is a real gold star on the report card of this movie, too. I’ve got no idea what it is about Pullman but I’ve been harbouring a really wrong crush on him ever since I was a kid, and I’ve never been able to figure out why. In While You Were Sleeping one thing about Pullman is clear: he has the eyes of a serial killer but the heart of a puppy. The fact that James Spader was once considered for the same role speaks volumes about the sort of character they were trying to develop within the narrative: they obviously wanted someone slightly off – wholesome enough to look at, but a deviant at the core. A man who really doesn’t care if his potential future bride has kind of really been stalking his brother all along. A man who just turns up outside of her apartment for a possible fleeting glimpse of her sat forlornly at her bedroom window in one of her dead father’s jumpers. I don’t know what’s wrong with me, but that’s my kind of man right there.
Moving swiftly on, lets talk about Rom-Com tropes. Specifically, the most important Rom-Com trope going: and that’s the use of a Chekhov’s Gun for the big, romantic pay off in the third act.
For those of you going, ‘Chekhov’s what now?’, the simplified version of the Chekhov’s Gun trope follows as thus: When a seemingly innocent plot point (i.e. a gun) is introduced within the first act of a story, you can bet your ass that it will be used at some point in the third act to help close the narrative. In Rom-Coms the Chekhov Gun is used to help the protagonist realise that their true love has been in front of them this whole damn time. From the first act it’ll be something as throwaway as the main protagonist saying ‘I just want a man who can make me laugh’ or ‘the right man will say ‘Bless You’ when I sneeze’ or other such trite nonsense. And then behold! Act 3 shows said man making the main protagonist laugh or saying ‘Bless You’ when she sneezes. Love, eh?
In While You Were Sleeping they waste no time at all in setting this up. Within the first five minutes it gets established that Lucy once asked her dad when it was that he realised that he was in love with her mother to which he answers something about how he always knew because ‘She gave me the World’. From there we find out that her dad is now dead, she misses him a whole bunch and when asked by the Callahan’s what it was that made her fall in love with the comatose man she’s never actually spoken to, she tells them something about how she’s always wanted a man who can make her laugh (what else are going to do during a 9 hour outdoor shift than laugh hysterically to yourself about a man who doesn’t even know you’re alive?).
Well now, what do you think Jack Callahan’s purpose in this narrative is? For starters, there’s a standard Rom-Com slapstick moment where Jack and Lucy slip around on ice together, howling with laughter like teenagers on poppers. There’s another (slightly creepy) moment where Lucy tells him that he reminds her of her dad (Score!). And finally – in the third act, just to confirm that she is totally, insanely in love with this Dad replacement – he gives her a snow globe of Florence (which is the place she’d most like to go to on the whole planet, apparently) – i.e. THE WORLD. Thanks for the foreshadowing, writers.
But the thing is, even for all its insanity, its creepiness, it’s wrongness, it’s horrible stereotyping of working class characters (Yo, I’m Joe Jnr and I’m fresh outta prison, I’m the clown of the piece cos the hopeless lives of the working class is hilarious, see?) and it’s constant bombardment that everyone needs love so badly that you sometimes have to fabricate it to survive – I still kinda love this film. It has the eyes of a serial killer but the heart of a puppy. It’s a fairy tale with all the flaws magnified in all their gory, horrendous glory.
All people are a little ‘off’ – we’re all prone to dark, obsessive moments, dank, desperate loneliness and behaviour that can sit on the border between ‘healthy’ and ‘seek medical assistance immediately’. While You Were Sleeping is a nauseating, trite Rom-Com in a pile of other nauseating, trite Rom-Coms, but at least it’s a little fucked up. Sandra Bullock 4eva.