Is there any more delicate a contraption than a comedy? It makes the first flying machines look like Concordes. For example, here's "While You Were Sleeping," just barely airborne, wavering between oblivion and absurdity, almost stalling out a dozen times, then finally, somehow, awkwardly, desperately, triumphing at the end.
The film is based on a premise that generates 90 minutes of amusing wrinkles, and that's where it gets into trouble: It's 120 minutes long.
Sandra Bullock, extremely comfortable in a role that emphasizes her essential decency and requires her to dodge nary a bomb or a bullet, plays Lucy, a lonely Chicago rapid transit employee (a token taker) who has conceived a crush on the glamorous passenger (Peter Gallagher) who boards at her station every morning. On Christmas Day, however, he's mugged and dumped on the tracks. She races out and saves his life by pulling him out of the way of a train; having hit his head, he lapses into a coma.
At the hospital, his warm, crazy, huge Catholic family swarms around him, led by Peter Boyle and Micole Mercurio. Somehow, in the confusion, Lucy is mistaken for his fiance. Within seconds, she herself is at the center of this family cocoon (not unpleasant, given her loneliness) and, quickly enough, locates a reason that justifies continuing the deception (the shaky health of the grandmother, Glynis Johns).
That's wrinkle No. 1. Wrinkle No. 2 arrives shortly thereafter, which is that the next morning she's introduced to the coma victim's brother, Jack -- the ever affable Bill Pullman, eternal guy-who-doesn't-get-the-gal -- and it's to him she's really attracted. So, as a friend puts it to her, "You're cheating on a vegetable you don't even know!"
Those two nifty developments keep the movie spinning for quite a while. Pullman, especially, appears to be on the way to a promotion as romantic possibility; playing off the obstacle that Lucy is his beloved and beloathed (don't ask; it's a guy thing) brother's best girl, he shows us all kinds of charming push-pull eccentricities.
We read the yearning on that face just as surely as we sense the decency that represses it. He's the total passive aggressive: He engineers opportunities to be alone with her and then he doesn't do anything. At the same time, the movie teases us with the ritual frustration of appropriateness. Both Bullock and Pullman are so nice we know they are made for each other, but the movie keeps shoving walls between them.
"While You Were Sleeping" begins to wear thin halfway through. The screenwriters ultimately engineer a problem they are not clever enough to solve. They know that if Bullock tells an out-and-out lie, audience sympathy with her will become problematical. At the same time, they must sustain her position in what is essentially a deception. Thus the movie spins out the conceit to wispier and wispier conditions. The lie -- that Bullock is Gallagher's fiance -- gets more and more difficult to conceal.
Ultimately, it falls to old pro Jack Warden, as the family's Jewish friend, to run interference before her. This becomes particularly galling as his powers of invention get more and more feeble, and too many plot twists are built on the same mechanism: Someone overhearing something out of context and turning it into a 10-minute bit. "Just freaking tell them the truth, for crying out loud!" you keep yelling as the film progresses. Worst of all, two of the characters suddenly decide to marry, a decision that has no root in believable motive.
But "While You Were Sleeping" awakens at the end. It finally gets down to the business of uniting the right boy and the girl, and it's niftily symbolized in the movie's emotional coin of the realm: that is, a token that's really an engagement ring. It's a long and frustrating wait, but "While You Were Sleeping" delivers all you can ask of a romantic comedy: the deluxe payoff.
"While You Were Sleeping"
Starring Sandra Bullock and Bill Pullman
Directed by Jon Turtletaub
Released by Hollywood Pictures