Seattle in the Movies

Sleepless in Seattle Makes Me Deeply Grateful That I Don’t Remember the '90s

New York is the city that never sleeps, Seattle is the city that never processes its feelings.

By Sophie Grossman

Tom Hanks thinks about new ways to avoid confronting his very real grief issues.

Image: Album / Alamy

What if Tom Hanks had actually just gone to therapy at the beginning of Sleepless in Seattle? This is the question that would haunt me, along with the sound of Barbara Garrick’s laugh, following my first ever viewing of the 1993 movie that launched a thousand novelty nightshirts.

The Basics

A Baltimore woman, Annie, falls for Sam, a widowed father living in Seattle, after she hears him reluctantly pouring his heart out on a late-night radio program to thousands of eager listeners (as one does). Annie, portrayed by Meg Ryan at the height of her wispy-banged, plum-lipsticked '90s glory, grapples with whether to obey her impetuous heart or to marry her fiance, Walter, who is the human embodiment of lukewarm bathwater.

In a scene early on, we come to understand that Walter, despite his many good qualities, will never be able to keep up with vivacious and cosmopolitan Annie, after he reveals he doesn’t know what dim sum is—which, to be clear, is perfectly legitimate grounds for ending an engagement. 

What Sleepless in Seattle Gets Right about Seattle

The film, which jumps back and forth between its protagonists in Baltimore and Seattle, establishes its setting in the Emerald City through a number of vague gestures. Torrential Hollywood rain, of course, a lunch scene at the Athenian in Pike Place, Tom Hanks’ floating home abode—all of these paint a picture of a waterlogged, wacky West Coast backwater that one would only move to as a last resort to escape the pervasive memory of a dead spouse. See the incredulous and mildly disgusted way Meg Ryan says “Seattle,” when trying to reason her way out of a growing attraction to a bereaved man living across the country. 

What Sleepless in Seattle Gets Wrong about Seattle

Annie traverses the entire country in hopes of catching a glimpse of a man she knows only by his voice on a radio program. Meanwhile, we can’t even get our Hinge dates to stop bailing last-minute. To be fair, Annie is from Baltimore, so maybe we just need to start setting our radius a lot wider in hopes of escaping that infamous Seattle Freeze.

The movie makes a lot of klutzy, '90s-era commentary on gender relations that very occasionally winks with a dull glint of nuance. But (I sincerely hope) no one is watching Sleepless in Seattle, the very blueprint for modern rom-coms, hoping for a multidimensional take on heterosexual relationships. Certainly all the pansexual polyamory and other nontraditional relationships to be found in the Seattle of today would be alarming and confusing to the film's protagonists; imagine if Annie had flipped to Savage Lovecast that night instead of whatever Dr. Phil-esque program featured Sam. 

One recurring trope that I did find particularly amusing, if not a bit troubling, was the vilification and mockery of mental health care professionals and those who seek their help. The mincing, condescending host of the radio show to which Sam calls in is a “shrink,” and treated with according disdain by Sam and Annie. And Sam responds with cynical contempt when his boss, at the film’s outset, hands him his own therapist’s business card. How absurd, the movie seems to suggest, that someone might encourage a man who has just lost his wife and the mother of his eight-year-old son to seek therapy when he could just...move across the country and fall in love with a woman he has never met? Never go to therapy, kids. Instead, try moving to Seattle, where the exceptional lack of sunlight will definitely improve your mental health.

Is Sleepless in Seattle a Seattle Movie?

There's nothing particularly "Seattle" about it, aside from the title. There's no hint, even a clumsy one, of the gritty, anti-establishment Seattle of the '90s that is spoken of with such frequency and nostalgia, and the city feels more like a device to get shots of Tom Hanks staring wistfully from the deck of a houseboat than a place. I had a distinct misapprehension that the movie’s iconic scene, where Annie and Sam finally meet atop the Empire State Building after a number of thwarted attempts, happened on the Space Needle. It is, after all, Sleepless in Seattle. But my proposed alternate title, which I believe to be both elegant and succinct, is Sleepless in the Early '90s Because There Is Still a Pervasive Stigma Associated with Therapy. 

The Grade

One out of five floating homes for this one, folks. The movie is far more a portrait of an era than a city, and I am grateful not to live in Nora Ephron’s Seattle of the 1990s, not least because everyone here actually knows what dim sum is.

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