Lucy (Sandra Bullock) lives a lonely existence as a token collector on the Chicago transit system, but someone brightens her day every time she sees him, and that's the commuter (Peter Gallagher) who passes through the station every morning. She wishes she could pluck up the courage to speak to him, but he has barely noticed her, although with Christmas arriving the next day he does wish her a merry one, yet she is too flustered to return the good wishes. Then something extraordinary happens: he is mugged and lands unconscious on the tracks, so Lucy springs into action.
Most of the reaction to While You Were Sleeping revolved around the star quality of the then-new celebrity Sandra Bullock, for whom this was one of the first movies she got to headline. Obviously being a female star she just had to do a romantic comedy, but while that genre is often viewed as a disposable way to spend an hour and a half without much thought, in this case there was something about the way it went beyond the admittedly farfetched premise and actually turned surprisingly touching. A lot of that was due to Bullock, and the way in which both script and supporting cast allowed her to shine in a role that could have seemed simply desperate.
That premise was that when Lucy saved the man she admired from afar, who it turns out is called Peter, she accompanied him to the hospital as he lay in a coma, and the nurse overhears her muttering that he should be the man she marries. The nurse gets the wrong end of the stick, and when the family arrive she tells them Lucy is Peter's fiancée, which they're all taken aback about seeing as how they never heard of her before, but hearing how she rescued him they're only too pleased to welcome her into their fold. Knowing the granny (Glynis Johns) has a heart condition, Lucy cannot risk her health by coming clean, and so begins an elaborate web of fibs.
It's a high concept that could have been the cue for any number of embarrassing crossed purposes and deceptions, but the script by Daniel G. Sullivan and Frederic LeBow resisted going in any more outlandish directions than it really needed to. Thus things were kept low key, even gentle, with only the odd moment of more forced humour, leaving room for the romance and inclusiveness of Peter's family to take over. Lucy lost both her parents and doesn't really have any close friends, so part of what makes her relcutant to admit the truth is that she truly enjoys being part of such a nice group of people, and there's a sadness to Bullock's portrayal that endears her to us.
To complicate things, Peter has a brother Jack, played by Bill Pullman, not the obvious romcom lead and all the better for it as Lucy and Jack fall for each other, but are put into a position by circumstances partly her fault that they cannot tell one another how they really feel. Along with those family themes was the familiar one in this style that nobody can say what they actually mean, and risk a life of unhappiness as a result unless what's on their minds can be spoken. Bullock and Pullman deftly depicted these as Peter lies in his coma (Gallagher must have thought this a pretty easy job), but he's not going to stay like that forever, and the question looms what will Lucy do when he wakes up and has no idea of who she is, never mind what she is doing there. Which is quite amusing, and if this wasn't uproarious it was sweet and entertaining in its dilemmas, especially considering how crass it could have been in less sympathetic hands. Sugary music, which could have been better, by Randy Edelman.