While You Were Sleeping is an all-time great rom-com, equally heavy on the rom and the com, featuring a stellar love triangle, Sandra Bullock and Bill Pullman at their most charming, a raucous supporting cast, and the definitive rundown on “the lean.” But it shines as a holiday movie too — one that exemplifies what’s best and hardest about the season. Bullock’s Lucy is lonely, and pining for both the loving family she lost and the big and boisterous one she never had. Christmas, with its enforced cheer and family traditions, doesn’t make it any easier for her to be on her own. But with the Callaghans, she finds not just romantic love but also welcome into one such family with new traditions and boundless care. The warmth at the center of this movie is what the holidays should be all about: welcome, empathy, forgiveness — and yes, kissing a handsome floppy-haired guy under the mistletoe.
Lucy (Bullock) is a token collector for the L in Chicago. Peter Callaghan (Peter Gallagher) is the handsome stranger who rushes through her turnstile each morning, and who she daydreams about as she hoists her Christmas tree through her second-floor window, feeds her cat, and tinsels her apartment — always alone, always be-sweatered. But when Peter falls onto the tracks one winter day, Lucy jumps into action, saving him from an oncoming train. A mix-up at the hospital has his big, loud, and loving family convinced she’s Peter’s new fiancée, and his grandmother’s (in)convenient heart condition keeps Lucy from setting them straight right away. While Peter lies in a coma, Lucy lies too — keeping up the ruse at the insistence of Saul (Jack Warden), a close friend of the family. And then she meets Jack (Pullman), Peter’s brother, who falls for Lucy without falling for her cover story.
The Real Hurts Christmas Can Bring
Over the course of one romantic Chicago winter, Lucy is instantly embraced by the Callaghans, invited to their Christmas celebration where a present is already waiting for her — one she clutches to her heart rather than opening right away, as the giving is the gift for someone used to being on her own. Lucy and Jack kiss awkwardly under the mistletoe, have an even more awkward New Year’s Eve, and hold each other as they slip awkwardly on the ice. When they finally come together for good on the fateful L platform where Lucy saved his brother, it’s the magic and warmth of the holidays that made it possible.
But what makes the movie such an effective holiday story, even once it tips over into a new year and the long stretch of winter doldrums that follows December’s celebrations, is the way it acknowledges how hard these days can be when mirth is hard to manufacture. Lucy is deeply lonely; more than that, she’s grieving. Her beloved father got sick, she upended her life to care for him, and then he died, leaving her on her own in a city she didn’t choose, trying to make sense of a life that was lit gold by a loving glow that has now gone out. She doesn’t have someone to carry her tree up to her apartment, so she rigs an (ill-fated) pulley system. She doesn’t have a decorating partner, so she and her cat festoon the tree in tinsel in an effort to brighten an empty apartment. The holidays can be oppressive in their cheer — depictions of family, of big meals and piles of presents and warm hugs, are everywhere. When you find yourself without those things, the constant reminders of what you’ve lost make it a decidedly un-wonderful Christmastime.
The Callaghans Bring Lucy Back to Life
But where Lucy is alone, the Callaghans are anything but — they’re the picture-perfect family, practically begging to be slapped on a Christmas card. They’re affectionate and warm, rowdy and loving, immediately welcoming and ready to believe the best. Jack and his father Ox (Peter Boyle) have a family business. The family collected Saul as a member of the family while he was deep in his own grief, just as they immediately do for Lucy. They are everything she longs for, and their holidays are as bursting with joy as hers is starved for it. Who wouldn’t continue pretending to be their comatose son’s fiancé when the company is this good?
But the bittersweet secret at the heart of While You Were Sleeping is that everyone’s sleeping, not just the handsome man in the coma. Lucy is sleepwalking through her life until the Callaghans’ infectious affection and Jack’s expert lean wake her up. Jack is keeping his head down, minimizing his passions to defer to his father’s dreams for him — and his father, loving as he is, doesn’t want to snap out of it (as per Moonstruck, another A+ holiday rom-com that While You Were Sleeping owes a clearly whimsical debt to). Once he comes out of his coma, we learn that Peter’s charmed life isn’t as perfect as his high-rise apartment and high-powered job would make it seem; he was emotionally asleep long before landing in his hospital bed. The holidays give everyone an occasion to wake up into a cozy, fulfilling new life by offering them all the opportunity to act on their best instincts.
Waking Everyone Up to the Best Part of the Holidays
The way out of Lucy’s long tunnel of grief and sadness isn’t stockings and cocoa, it’s believing she deserves to be happy — the holiday merriment just shows her that’s true. We know better than she does that she has people who care for her; we see the effect she has on every member of the Callaghan family before she does. The yuletide embrace of this loving family just helps her believe it, and start betting on herself and facing the truth. By embracing the engagement he doesn’t remember (because, of course, it never happened), Peter rediscovers genuine feeling — amnesia must be the only explanation for forgetting something that feels so right. Jack has to learn to trust that his family’s big love isn’t just for show, and that he can strike out on his own without leaving him behind.
And at every turn, the characters choose what’s best about the holidays. Ox gives his son the gift of trust and freedom. Lucy tells the truth, with gratitude and love for the family that embraced her and for the kind-eyed man who sees her for who she is. And the family does what families do, especially in the warm glow of the holidays: they forgive. They choose empathy and prioritize good intentions, extending their unconditional love and understanding to Lucy, a woman who loved them enough to become a better and braver version of herself.
As swoony as the Lucy and Jack romance is — and oh holy night, is it — its admittedly wacky twists and turns work because of the genuine warmth and kindness they extend to each other. The holidays are a time when we’re meant to love our neighbors and strangers alike, when we try and act from a place of generosity rather than scarcity. ‘Tis the season to be jolly, and with the Callaghans, Lucy can feel it for the first time in too long. By embracing what’s best about the holidays, the Callaghans help Lucy see the ways her new year can mean a new life, with new goals and new love.