Tuesday, March 17, 2009

What About Walter?

While recently re-watching Sleepless In Seattle, a friend raised an objection: How can one enjoy the film when a deserving man, a kind man, by almost all standards a wonderful man like Bill Pullman's Walter is thoughtlessly tossed aside and crushed under the wheels of Meg Ryan's and Tom Hanks's barreling, destiny-fueled love locomotive? What about Walter?

Well, what about Walter?

Sure, he's a lovely man. A sensitive man. An intelligent man. And a wonderful athlete, as Meg Ryan's Annie will attest to. Sure, he's a little dull, and his jokes almost always fall flat, but isn't that endearing? His only serious flaw is his almost debilitating allergies, and you can't really hold that against him, can you.

Yes, you can, the movie would have us believe.

At the end of the film, Annie leaves Walter—a man with whom, we have been led to believe, she is completely (perhaps too?) compatible—for the possibility of a love that is exciting, instinctive, and destined, embodied in Tom Hanks's Sam. More importantly, though, she leaves Walter for the possibility of children, for the possibility of a fertile relationship, something that she and the audience understand on some level is impossible to have with Walter. Walter's a nice guy, but, when it comes right down to it, he is not a suitable baby maker.

Walter is a character with whom intimacy—emotional, but also, and more importantly, physical—is impossible. After Annie announces her engagement to Walter, and she is in the attic with her mother, trying on her grandmother's wedding dress, her mother tells the story of how she met Annie's father. There is much in the story about destiny and magic, and the audience is clued into the fact that Annie's emotional experience with Walter has thus far been far removed from her mother's experience with Annie's father. After telling her story, Annie's mother remarks, "Walter. It's quite a formal name, isn't it?" She then shares with Annie how excited she had been to make love to Annie's father, but that it took some time before "things worked like clockwork in that department." Annie informs her mother that she and Walter have already begun a physical relationship and assures her that it's going "like clockwork."

And that's the problem. Annie has decided to spend the rest of her life in a relationship that is as mechanical and predictable as a clock; a relationship with a man without a nickname. When she and Walter leave her parents' house, Annie tells Walter she loves him, then asks if anybody has ever called him anything besides Walter. He tells her no, "not even when I was a kid." Even the man's name puts up a sort of emotional barrier, preventing Annie from ever getting too close.

Later in the film, we are taken inside Annie's and Walter's bedroom and shown the "clockwork." While "Makin' Whoopie" plays in the background, Annie and Walter go through what is clearly a well-practiced routine of preparing the room for Walter to sleep in a minimum of allergy-induced discomfort. "Another season, another reason for makin' whoopie?" Not here. Not with this guy.

In a world where it's easier to be killed by a terrorist than to get married past the age of forty—as we are (incorrectly) told by more than one character in the film—people are keenly aware of their biological clocks. When Annie hears Sam and his son Jonah on the radio, she is keenly reminded of something she wants, something her parents had, and something she knows she will never have with Walter. She wants a spark, yes. She wants excitement, to be sure. But also—maybe most importantly—she wants children. Walter—as the film would have us understand in harshly evolutionary, survival-of-the-fittest terms—is not the type of man who can sire strong children; Sam Baldwin comes equipped with a son already, and offers the possibility of more children in the future.

At the end of the movie, Sam and Jonah meet Annie at the top of the Empire State Building. As the elevator doors close on the starry-eyed couple and the young boy, the audience celebrates not just the triumph of love, but the creation of a new family. We can only hope that Walter goes on to find happiness with a woman who has no interest in having children, or who, like Sam, has already done so.

I'm not saying Sleepless In Seattle's underlying themes of fertility, virility, and reproduction are what have won over fans, but I do think they make the film more interesting and deserve consideration.


  1. Why is there only one post on this blog? I demand more commentary!!