1 Hr., 59 Mins.
You've Got Mail January 5, 2019
ou’ve Got Mail (1998) is spiritually similar to most romantic comedies released during Hollywood's so-called golden era. The storyline and the accompanying conflict are so frivolous that they just barely curb cutesiness. The characters who will decide they’re in love with each other by the movie’s end are familiar cutouts: the smart, self-sufficient woman who nonetheless wishes her love life was more
fulfilling; the man who at first appears to be a selfish jerk but turns out to have a heart of gold. New York City, where the film takes place, is picturesque to the point of looking artificial. Everyday actions, like walking down the street or sending an email, are accompanied by cartoonish, jazzy amalgams of non-diegetic piano, horns, and xylophones, pushing us in the direction of feeling so airy that we wouldn't be opposed to singing and dancing in the rain.
But of course You’ve Got Mail feels akin to vintage romantic comedies: It’s based on Parfumerie, a 1937 play by Miklós László. Today, that production is best known for inspiring The Shop Around the Corner (1940), a touchstone for the rom-com. I haven’t seen the latter, but I assume it’s delightful. It stars James Stewart, who is among the most effortlessly lovable of leading men, and Margaret Sullavan, a dynamic blonde. And it was directed by Ernst Lubitsch, the German-American filmmaker who made comedies so unusually elegant and light that his best movies are often said to be blessed with the “Lubitsch touch.”
You’ve Got Mail is considerably appealing, too. Nora Ephron, who helmed the film and co-wrote its screenplay with her sister, Delia, provides it with a sort of “Ephron touch,” if you will — none too surprising with a track record including When Harry Met Sally (1989) and Sleepless in Seattle (1993). The Stewart and Sullavan parts are, respectively, given to Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, performers so charming that they’re more or less built for a genre as frequently trifling as the romantic comedy.
Since You’ve Got Mail is plenty trifling — and noisily dated — itself, the across-the-board charisma is a blessed thing. It stars Hanks and Ryan as Joe and Kathleen, 30-somethings who, as the movie starts, have begun a relationship. Not a typical one, however: they have met online via an “over 30” chat-room, and have begun an anonymous correspondence. Kathleen, the owner of a folksy children’s bookstore called, winkingly, The Shop Around the Corner, goes by the username “Shopgirl"; Joe is from the Fox family, a clan which owns the brassy, Barnes & Noble-like chain Fox Books, and calls himself “NY152.”
There are limits when it comes to this peculiar courtship. Joe and Kathleen aren’t allowed to reveal too-personal information about themselves, and it's understood that meeting in person is out of the question. This anonymity is necessary for a couple of reasons. Joe is living with a talkative, waspy book editor named Patricia (Parker Posey), whom he doesn't appear to like but still might propose to; Kathleen is involved with Frank (Greg Kinnear), a vain newspaper columnist who seems more attached to his typewriter than he does his girlfriend. Plus, a Fox Books is under construction just across from The Shop Around the Corner, which practically guarantees ruin for the smaller store within the year. The truth would be destructive.
The underlying conceit of You’ve Got Mail is that Kathleen and Joe will coincidentally meet in real life, and, unaware of the other’s online identity, butt heads. Despite being quasi-enemies for almost the entirety of the movie, they'll eventually come to realize that they're perfect for each other once the truth behind each pseudonym is revealed.
Ryan and Hanks are so easy to like, and are so good at playing these people, that we believe that Kathleen would be satisfied ending up with a man who has mostly brought her misery. We even find ourselves believing that underneath Joe’s often impetuous exterior is a nice guy. Ephron has no problem, for the most part, getting us to buy a storyline like this. Because it's so unmoored from, and so much more rose-colored than, our reality, we don’t expect anyone to act like we might in most of the situations presented. The distinct unreality is, in a way, an asset.
What makes the film feel extra 1998 — Ryan’s anime-pointy bob and assortment of wonderfully thick sweaters, the presence of AOL and blocky computers, the idea of there being a small-time bookstore in the Upper West Side — add to the allure. Inexorably, Fox Books will someday be ousted by Amazon; online dating will, as we know now, later be based on Tinder, for example. (Though the spotlighting of AOL, whose existence also encapsulates to the movie’s almost comical amount of product placement, is actually pretty prescient, if you think about it.)
But I can’t help but find You’ve Got Mail a little depressing, too. (And not just because Posey, who is one of her generation's great actresses, is so taken-for-granted that, at one point, she’s just a blurred body emptily prattling in an adjoining room.) The Shop Around the Corner is — spoiler alert — inescapably put out of business by Fox Books. At the beginning of the last act, we watch as Kathleen aimlessly ambles about, not knowing what to do with herself. In a scene that put a lump in my throat, she walks around Fox Books, eventually settling down in the children’s section. She helps someone find a book, and, in spite of herself, starts crying. Joe overhears the entire thing but doesn’t intervene. If you were her, would you really hope — as Kathleen says she does in the film's climactic scene — that the online paramour whom you’ve unwisely been counting on for the last year was the man who essentially took away the one thing that made your life bearable? B-