I’ve spent much of my life on a quest for the best romantic comedies. As someone who can’t stomach too much suspense—and certainly not too much violence or gore—these sorts of movies are right in the sweet spot for me. I don’t mind watching the same clichés and tropes paraded out time and again, I almost always manage to fall in love with the characters despite their entirely avoidable miscommunications and mistakes, and I never get sick of the predictable endings.
But my willingness to suspend disbelief and enjoy even some of the silliest “chick flicks” doesn’t mean that I’ve lost the ability to appreciate greatness when I see it, and my latest discovery of a truly wonderful romantic comedy was the 1995 movie, While You Were Sleeping.
A friend had recommended it to me no fewer than ten years ago, but I only just got around to watching it on a recent, socially distanced evening—and spent the rest of the night kicking myself for having waited so long.
Not only is it a perfectly charming and pleasantly unpredictable version of the typical rom-com, but it’s also a snapshot of what seems to be a bygone age when romantic movies managed to contrive a plot centered around something other than the foibles of men and women hopping in and out of each other’s beds until the moment the credits roll.
In case any of you have managed, like I did, to put off watching this movie for several decades, we find our hapless protagonist, Sandra Bullock’s Lucy, working a thankless job at Chicago’s public-transportation system, with little family or friends to speak of. Her life is dreary, monotonous, and lonely—at least until she has an unexpected run-in with a mystery man, which results in her becoming entangled with his large, unsuspecting family right around Christmas time.
At least in the view of this seasoned rom-com watcher, the twists and turns that come next are far less expected than the usual chick-flick fare, and the result is a delightful, laugh-out-loud-funny journey as we watch Lucy struggle to figure out whom she really loves, how she might fit in, and what she really wants from life.
The acting, screenplay, and plot are reason enough to spend a couple hours watching this classic to pass the time stuck at home. Its themes, however, make it the perfect movie for our present moment. Aside from the obvious physical toll the coronavirus has taken on us, and the subsequent economic devastation, the health emergency has ripped us out of the social networks and communities in which most of us were so used to living.
Technological advances such as FaceTime and Zoom have been godsends, to be sure, but we all know that a video call can never replace a housewarming party, a first date at a movie or a dine-in restaurant, a real Thanksgiving dinner, a chance for grandparents to watch their grandchildren open presents under the tree. Social distancing, though a necessity in some circumstances, doesn’t come without significant suffering and costs.
We are social creatures, and though they hadn’t received nearly enough attention, social scientists had been telling us long before the coronavirus outbreak that we’re in the grips of an isolation pandemic, a cultural crisis of loneliness. It’s little surprise that the last few months of lockdowns have brought about spikes in the number of Americans reporting anxiety and depression, certainly due at least in part to increased isolation.
Which brings us back to lonely Lucy. Along with giving us more well-rounded characters than the modern rom-com typically delivers, While You Were Sleeping reminds us in our age of isolation that we are all better off when we’re knit into communities and places where we belong—even when those communities force us to accept other people’s idiosyncrasies, even when living closely with them requires patience and selflessness, even when it’s difficult and often painful to be dependent on others and have them depend on us.
It reminds us, in short, that far from “finding ourselves” or our purpose in the pursuit of self-crafted, self-centered meaning, we will find our real fulfillment in communities where we learn to give ourselves away.
Alexandra DeSanctis is a staff writer at National Review and a visiting fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.
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