Film Discussion

While You Were Sleeping (1995) – Rom-Com Rewind

The romantic comedy has proved an enduring genre for the silver screen, from the screwball comedy of the 30s to its peak in the 90s, and resurgent popularity in the 2010s. Set The Tape presents Rom-Com Rewind, a series looking at the history of the genre and how it has developed over the course of nearly a hundred years of movie history.

One of the potential problems that the romantic comedy genre frequently runs up against is how some of the stories that it tells can become problematic in later years. Changing societal norms means that this is perhaps inevitable as we become more alert and woke to changing perceptions of issues such as gender, political correctness, race and consent.

Inevitably, some movies that were massively popular at the box office and became firm favourites via video and television broadcasts still retain their popularity but have to be watched with the point of view that things have changed and aspects of their stories might be looked at somewhat differently in the present day; something frequently followed by an article where the author delivers the opinion that such and such a film has aged poorly because of the issues depicted.

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So it is we come to While We Were Sleeping. There is nothing on-screen that might give pause for thought at first glance, but in the twenty-six years since its premiere, its central story involving a lie that turns epic fast might be looked at with a touch more suspicion in present times. The thrust of the story is meant to be sweet-natured, poignant and fun, but it does involve its leading character basically lying her way into the family of a man that she had a crush on from a distance, being low-key manipulative in her actions, and whose reward for her antics isn’t being punished but actually being accepted by his family while finding true love with his even more handsome brother.

Yes, it sounds awful, but back in 1995 it was a huge hit, bolstered by the confirmation of Sandra Bullock being a movie star and giving Bill Pullman a chance to finally get the girl. It sounds odd to say that Bill Pullman is incapable of getting the girl, the guy is the dictionary definition of ‘handsome leading man’, but he seemed to be more of the proverbial nice guy who finishes last, most famously in Sleepless in Seattle.

He had the looks of a traditional movie lead and this was to be the beginning of a great period for him, following this up by playing the world-saving US President a year later in the gigantic blockbuster Independence Day. His career up to this point had been a successful one of supporting leads, but the tide had started to turn in his favour in the years leading up to While You Were Sleeping thanks to his performance in the Aaron Sorkin-scripted Malice.

Of course, those good looks and the charming guy next door demeanour are classic ones for a romantic lead, and here he shares considerable chemistry with Bullock, and would be a brilliantly classic liberal Presidental lead in Roland Emmerich’s bombastic end of the world blockbuster a year later, but those looks and that persona have always had a brilliant ability to be subverted to a devastating degree, as seen in his work in David Lynch’s typically surreal and nightmarish Lost Highway, and his recent television work in Torchwood: Miracle Day and the critically acclaimed The Sinner.

A romantic comedy starring Bullock and Pullman is a none more 90s concoction given their star stature during the period, but they have parlayed their careers into more challenging and darker material in recent times. Pullman’s turn in the television series The Sinner has taken what could have so easily have been an actor who combined elements of Harrison Ford and Tom Hanks and plunged that charming all-American persona into something more twisted, while Bullock has furthered her career with brilliant genre pieces such as Gravity, Bird Box and the underrated Ocean’s 8.

Being labelled a romantic comedy lead can sometimes hide the fact that actors and actresses are famously associated with it can deliver work in other genres and still deliver the goods. We associate Julia Roberts with rom-coms and yet she followed up Pretty Woman with the intense Sleeping with the Enemy, starred in thrillers such as The Pelican Brief and Conspiracy Theory, and won her Oscar for Erin Brockovich, while Meg Ryan appeared in Courage Under Fire and showed that she was unafraid to subvert her screen image by starring in Jane Campion’s erotic thriller In The Cut. 

Back in the 90s, there was a perception that Bullock was a romantic comedy lead of the Meg Ryan or Julia Roberts mould, and yet like her peers, not only was she capable of being every bit as memorable in films that weren’t romantic comedies, she had actually become famous for starring in 90s action films such as the subversive and wonderful Demolition Man and the classic of the decade that was Speed.

In fact, you were more inclined to see her in productions that could range from the John Grisham adaptation A Time to Kill (you weren’t a big name 90s movie star if you didn’t do a Grisham adaptation) to intense sobriety drama 28 Days. Yes, there was Hope Floats, Practical Magic and Forces of Nature, but her status as a rom-com staple maybe says a lot more about how critics opt to try and pigeon-hole actors and actresses as opposed to looking at the vast range of work they actually do.

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On paper, this looks like the definitive Sandra Bullock-starring 90s rom-com, but in fact, it was one of many 90s films she starred in that were part and parcel of many genres that she dabbled in. She was frequently cast alongside incredibly handsome leading men of the period, but the movie she did with Matthew McConaughey was a courtroom drama and not a rom-com as you might expect, and while she did appear in comedic vehicles with Hugh Grant and Harry Connick Jr, she has always been more reflective of a talent who could go from one genre to another with brilliant ease.

That both Demi Moore and Julia Roberts were offered the lead role in While You Were Sleeping isn’t a surprise, and it’s perhaps even more of a surprise that the studio and producers didn’t go to Meg Ryan while they were at it, just to complete the set in offering it to the biggest female stars of the decade. It very much cemented the lovable charm of Bullock herself, someone who was very identifiable getting caught up in circumstances beyond their control. Whether that was getting caught up in a problematic romantic comedy as she did here, or the bus that couldn’t slow down, or eventually being stranded in space to Oscar-winning and blockbuster effect, she has forever remained one of Hollywood’s most charming and brilliantly effective talents and one of the genuinely great modern-day movie stars.

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