Light, fluffy romantic comedies - like "Only You" and "It Could Happen to You" last year - are staples of American cinema. And these days they are inevitably compared to "Sleepless in Seattle," "When Harry Met Sally . . . " and "Moonstruck."
But they actually owe something to the screwball comedies of the '30s and '40s, with their goofy, contrived plots about couples who can't quite get together until the final reel, when all the comic complications are finally solved."While You Were Sleeping" fits into the category, with its story of a lonely woman who yearns for romance and finds it in an unexpected way. Sandra Bullock (the passenger who drives the bus in "Speed") stars as Lucy, who works for the Chicago Transit Authority at a token booth. And it's love at first sight when Peter (Peter Gallagher) becomes a regular customer. But, of course, he doesn't give her a second glance.
Working on Christmas Day, Lucy is surprised to see Peter come through the gate, and then she watches helplessly as he is mugged and falls onto the railroad tracks. Lucy rescues him, but Peter has slipped into a coma - and at the hospital, a nurse mistakenly informs Peter's family that Lucy is his fiance.
Reluctantly, at first, she accepts the role - just to make the family happy. But then she begins to enjoy it, since she has no family of her own. Complications ensue, how-ever, when she meets and falls for Peter's brother Jack (Bill Pullman) - especially after narcissistic Peter comes out of his coma and his real fiance shows up.
There's no question that the movie could be quickly resolved if Lucy would just tell the family the truth, but as time progresses that becomes harder to do. And while the film is more of an amusing, inward-chuckle kind of film than one that provides hearty laughter, there is a sweetness and charm that pulls it through the rough spots. And director Jon Turteltaub ("Cool Runnings") has a nice feel for physical comedy, with a running gag about people slipping on Chicago's treacherous winter ice.
Bullock is perfectly cast in the lead and has a wonderfully endearing screen presence. And she's surrounded by a delightful array of familiar character players: In addition to Pullman and Gallagher, both of whom contribute some good humor, Jack Warden plays a family friend, Glynis Johns is Grandma and Peter Boyle and Micole Mercurio are Peter's parents. Michael Rispoli is at first rather obnoxous as Lucy's ill-mannered neighbor, but he gradually develops into a more palatable and amusing character.
"While You Were Sleeping" is no great shakes, but as this season's gentle, feel-good romantic amusement, it works quite well.
The film is rated PG for violence (Peter being attacked by muggers) and some mild vulgarity and profanity.