I am going to begin this with two confessions:
- Until tonight I had never seen “Sleepless in Seattle.” Apparently this is some sort of heresy considering that I have lived close to a quarter of a century and spent almost that entire time in the vicinity of Seattle.
- Tonight I was alone and had nothing to do, so I watched it for the first time.
Now that those are out of the way, I’m going to offer you a couple minutes to judge me based on either/both of those confessions. Feel free to take your time; I’ll be here when you’re ready to move on.
I guess I probably should have made this three confessions, because I really struggled with liking the movie. I wanted to. I even tried to. Somehow it was just a bit too problematic for me.
Your natural response, I’m sure, is something like this: “Well, Tyler, you’re such a man’s man that you shouldn’t be surprised you didn’t like such a stereotypical chick flick. You need a real movie like (fill in the blank with any action movie starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Steven Segal, Jean Claude Van Damme or Tom Cruise here).”
Regardless of my obviously high levels of masculinity, you may be shocked to know that I really enjoy a lot of “chick flicks.” I also hate a lot of them. For me there is very little middle ground. I think the key is that there has to be some dose of realism – some level of legitimate conflict.
I don’t like when they make the guy the girl is currently with such a horrible person that it’s obvious she needs to go after the nice guy (which is why I like “Sweet Home Alabama” – both guys seem to be genuinely good guys that really care about her).
I don’t like when they tell the story from a women’s perspective as if she’s the hero of the story when she’s really the villain and then she ends up with the man anyway (which is why I like “My Best Friend’s Wedding” – it is a hilarious movie and *spoiler alert* Julia Roberts doesn’t end up with the guy).
I don’t like when the whole plot of the movie is glorifying something horrible, like breaking up someone else’s wedding (which is why I hate “The Wedding Planner.” I understand that in movies like that they make it clear that the wedding needs to be broken up, but I think that desensitizes us to the horror of actually breaking up relationships for your own selfish desires).
Anyway, I could list a bunch of other chick flicks that I thoroughly enjoy, even excluding Disney movies (“While You Were Sleeping,” “Jerry Maguire,” “Hitch,” “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days,” “Grease,” “Doc Hollywood,” Dirty Dancing,” “For Love Or Money,” “Titanic,” obviously “The Princess Bride,” “You’ve Got Mail,” and almost every Hugh Grant movie, etc.).
I believe there’s a fundamental need in life for conflict of some sort. Now we often think of conflict as fighting, but really it is just some sort of tension. Life is conflict, otherwise we would have no plot. One of my favorite writers, Don Miller, speaks about the importance of tension/conflict as revealing our need for relationship and, essentially, our need for God.
When chick flicks simplify the conflict out of the plot, everything becomes way too black and white to have any sense of realism. Now chick flicks (and movies in general) aren’t supposed to be realistic, you say. I agree, to an extent.
At some point we can no longer identify with the characters in any way if they lose all conflict. They also lose all continuity. Perhaps the best examples for this point will be two “classic” chick flicks starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan: “Sleepless in Seattle” and “You’ve Got Mail.”
In “Sleepless in Seattle,” we end up with a character in Sam who is legitimate. He is hurting and has no idea how to overcome the death of his lover and move on. He is guarded and, understandably, cynical of all of the attention he receives throughout the movie. In fact, as his son reveals aspects of Annie’s character (through her letter), Sam completely disregards her. He is simply not interested.
This leads his up-to-this-point fairly level-headed-but-loving son to jump a plane to New York, because obviously that’s what an eight-year-old should do in that situation. NO! That is horrifying! While you could make an argument that an eight-year-old is that crazy, this is not something we should be featuring in a movie. I am nowhere close to having kids of my own, but I can almost guarantee that if one of my hypothetical children did something like that I would die of a heart attack. End of movie; Tom Hanks is dead.
Also, poor Sam gets roped into going to New York even after sharing his VERY legitimate fear of the situation (essentially that he has seen the movie “Fatal Attraction”). This is how a person would respond, and this is why he closes that door of opportunity. Further, Annie is crazy. We are never led to understand why she is so touched by Sam’s story more than the other 2,000 women who send him letters – why are we supposed to believe that they wouldn’t be a perfect match for him?
Finally (and admittedly I love Bill Pullman and am likely naturally biased toward his character), Annie just crushes poor Walter’s life. Now, of course since it’s a chick flick they make him okay with it, but he is one of the most genuine (albeit very flawed as they turned physical ailments into a character flaw, which is a bit low-brow for me) characters in the movie.
Suddenly Sam sees Annie at random a couple times and is entranced by her physical appearance? I’m sorry but this is pretty much the definition of lust, which is one of the furthest things from love that you’ll find. Then at the end of the movie it is as if he dismisses all of his concerns (made all the more legitimate by the obvious revelation that she has been stalking him throughout the movie) because he sees her again. Even as the movie ends they share essentially nothing of substance; he just accepts her and they are together.
I’m sorry but I can’t identify with any part of that, and that is a problem if I want to be engrossed in a movie. At the end she is still kind of a creepy, unstable stalker and Sam is an emotionally compromised man entranced almost by a spell of some sort (it honestly reminds me most of the way Prince Eric is magically attracted to Ursula’s disguise – yup, you knew Disney was making it in here at some point).
Jumping over to “You’ve Got Mail.” I have recently been a bit troubled by Joe Fox’s role in the movie as he manipulates Kathleen into falling in love with him. I love the movie, and I think this tension of morality actually plays into that.
We see these two realize that they are not who they thought they were as they write anonymously to each other. Often we do not really learn our own identity until we are forced to open up and share it with someone else, so this is something we can relate to.
At this point, Joe realizes that there is a major problem in the fact that he and his pen pal/perfect mate actually hate each other. So he spends the final 40 minutes trying to figure out what to do, eventually realizing that he has to woo her before revealing his “identity” at the end of the movie.
Even then we reach the end when Kathleen says, “I wanted it to be you. I wanted it to be you so badly,” yet we see the tension in her expression. She has to come to grips with the fact that she has just been manipulated (that word might be too harsh for what Joe actually does, but I can’t think of a softer word for it) and decide whether the ends justify the means.
I actually found something similar while rereading Francis Chan’s fantastic book “Crazy Love.” Chan responds to the question of why a loving God would “force” people to love Him by “threatening” hell. While the issue (and answer) goes far deeper than the simplicity of that phrasing, Chan writes:
“If God is truly the greatest good on this earth, would He be loving us if He didn’t draw us toward what is best for us (even if that happens to be Himself)? Doesn’t His courting, luring, pushing, calling, and even “threatening” demonstrate His love? If He didn’t do all of that, wouldn’t we accuse Him of being unloving in the end, when all things are revealed?” (Crazy Love, p. 62)
This reminded me of Joe Fox. Not because Joe Fox is the greatest good on earth, but because he discovered that he and Kathleen belonged together and knew that he had to draw her toward him even as she did not realize what was happening. I still think that most women would slap him and reject him if they were in that situation, but I also think that illustrates why we struggle with God’s love.
We want to discover love on our own, and we do not like being wooed by someone we do not choose. It’s simply human nature, and it also explains why the difference between flirting and sexual harassment can honestly be as simple as which guy says it (I’m not saying I disagree with that, simply that it is true).
“You’ve Got Mail” forces us to face our own limitations of awareness. We are not omniscient; as much as we hate to admit it, we rarely know what is actually best for us. The tension is real and represents the tension we see in our hearts as we are wooed by a God who loves us eternally and really does know what is best for us. I think that’s why I can watch it as many times as I have and still puzzle over it and cherish it.
As heretical as this may be, “Sleepless in Seattle” does not offer that same experience. The conflict is not real aside from the conflict between the individual characters and sane, logical actions. I am not claiming love is logical, but I am saying that there are limits to what we can see and do.
No chick flick is perfect (I know, shocker!), and I don’t ask for perfection. But I want to understand the plight of the characters and see the struggle as they battle to choose between love and personal aspirations or whatever the tension may be. Not full reality, but a healthy dose of realism.
Give me “You’ve Got Mail” over “Sleepless in Seattle” every night.