I was watching the special features on my DVD of Sleepless In Seattle recently, and included with the special features is a behind-the-scenes documentary of sorts. It's nice enough, but something about it annoyed me. Again and again, people involved with the film talked about how the movie was a celebration of movie-style love. To me, this is a gross over-simplification of the film. It cheapens the story's emotional impact and denies it the possibility of having anything meaningful to say about life as we live it.
If the movie works only because it is a celebration of love in the movies, then it's nothing more than a rehearsing of An Affair to Remember. Though Sleepless is no doubt indebted to this film, it has far more to offer than a mere repackaging of a classic love story.
I think the whole point of including the allusions and overt references to Affair is to contrast not so much the difference between movie love and real love (something that, admittedly, the film is not too concerned with), but to highlight a generational contrast. Meg Ryan was born four years after Affair was released; Tom Hanks was born a year before. Assuming the characters' ages correspond with the actors' ages, Annie and Sam are both in their mid-thirties at the time of the film. Their experience with Affair is not direct but second-hand. It is a film more of their parents' generation than their own.
Annie says while watching Affair, "That's when people knew how to be in love." Her friend Becky argues that she wants to be in love in a movie, not in real life. But the film has already given us two sets of characters who experienced a love that was if not quite as dramatic as that between Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr then at least as compelling: Annie's parents and Sam and his first wife. Annie's parents are of the World War II generation and first met at a time when Atlantic City was still a major family vacation destination. Sam and his first wife met during Jimmy Carter's administration; not a heyday of romance, to be sure, but still well before the "greed is good," Reagan-'80s and the cold practicality of the early '90s.
Both couples serve as a counterpoint to the way relationships are carried out in America in the early '90s. The film is saying that there's something wrong in the way men and women relate now; something intuitive and natural that our parents had and that we've lost. The problem, the film wants to say, is not that people don't know how to be in love like in the movies; the problem is that people in the early '90s don't know how to be in love like people in the '50s.
An Affair to Remember is a wonderful movie. But let's not allow it to limit the true value of Sleepless In Seattle.