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Big ideas on relationships

For a moment, Tom Hanks looks Big again, with wide-eyed defensiveness and the petulant pout of a man-child. He's making the rounds at the Four Seasons Hotel, from one table of interviewers to another, answering questions about his latest film, Sleepless in Seattle _ and a barb about an old one.

Someone mentions that his previous pairing with co-star Meg Ryan, Joe vs. the Volcano, wasn't successful. "Well, that's not what that other table said," he counters, jerking a thumb toward another pack of reporters. A grin creases his angular face, partly because he feels vindicated and partly because he knows that 1990 comedy was a stinker.

Most of all, Hanks can afford to grin because Sleepless in Seattle shows all signs of being a huge critical and commercial success. Although they share only three scenes in Nora Ephron's unique new comedy, Hanks and Ryan form the most romantic on-screen couple since Harry met Sally or Alvy Singer fell for Annie Hall.

Hanks plays Sam Baldwin, a widower whose son (Ross Malinger) hooks him up with a national radio talk show to discuss his loneliness. Ryan is Annie Reed, a Baltimore Sun reporter who hears the show. Sam comes over the airwaves and into her heart, setting up a funny, fetching tale of romantic fate and, possibly, failure.

"One of the things I liked about this movie is that it wasn't just about (whining), "Gee, I just can't have a relationship.' I am so sick of those movies," said Hanks. "I'm so sick of that kind of premise. Instead, here's a guy who's coming out of the physiological process of grieving for his dead wife, wondering not if he'll be happy again, but if he'll ever experience that kind of intimacy and friendship with a woman again."

Whether two people can overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles to find true love is at the heart of Ephron's witty valentine to mushy movies.

"In a goofy way, I think this movie very accurately captures the story of men meeting women in the 1990s," said Hanks in the film's production notes.

Which leads to a face-to-face question for the star: Are we really in that much trouble?

"Yes we are in that much trouble," said Hanks. "Society's whole take on men and women has been dictated by the polar opposites of MTV and the Sally Jessy Raphael show. There is no in-between, or so it has been communicated to us.

"In the course of romance, we need to clean our pipes out of all this nonsense that's been pounded into us by the media and the arts and popular entertainment. We need to get down to the individual humanity of a man and a woman. We don't invest the time in that; it has to be on fast-forward so we can get right to love at first sight."

Is there anything wrong with that, Hanks is asked?

"Love at first sight exists," he concedes. "I knew I was in trouble when I first met my wife (actor Rita Wilson.) The work that went on after love at first sight, though, is pretty substantial _ sometimes never-ending. Women want the prince to come along and put on the glass shoe and that's it. Men want the same thing; to be Prince Charming, slip on the shoe and say "Fine, come live with me

in the castle.' It just doesn't happen that way."

It does, but primarily in the movies _ a truism that gives Sleepless in Seattle its charm. Ephron's script turns cinematic romance on its ear with its far-flung premise and recurring references to what she calls "chick movies," especially the 1957 tearjerker An Affair to Remember, starring Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr.

Ephron's nod to Leo McCarthy's melodrama presents Hanks with another in a series of unavoidable comparisons. Ever since he surfaced in Splash, Hanks' everyman appeal and loopy integrity has been compared with classic actors, especially James Stewart. Sleepless in Seattle sets up an inevitable comparison with Grant, the most romantic movie star of all time.

As soon as Cary Grant was mentioned, Hanks buried his head in his hands in mock dismay.

"I begged Nora to find a Jimmy Stewart movie," he cracked, then recalled a story about how such comparisons grow:

"A friend of mine had to answer questions for an interviewer and he was asked: Do you think Tom Hanks is the next Jimmy Stewart or the next Jack Lemmon? He answered the question: "blah, blah .

.

. I think he's Jimmy Stewart.' And then after he said that, the reporter says: "But don't you think he's the next Jack Lemmon?'

"

Hanks laughs at the absurdity along with reporters who recognize it. "I make no claim to be that," he insists. "I never said that, there's no way . . ."

Then he pauses, considering that company. In a moment he feels playful and Big once again, adding:

". . . But okay."

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