Sometimes I wonder about my life. I lead a small life – well, valuable, but small – and sometimes I wonder, do I do it because I like it or because I haven’t been brave? So much of what I see reminds me of something I read in a book, when shouldn’t it be the other way around? I don’t really want an answer. I just want to send this cosmic question out into the void. So good night, dear void. – Shopgirl
You’ve Got Mail is one of the best romantic comedies of the past 25 years. It does pretty much everything I hope a romantic comedy will do when I watch it. I fall in love with the characters, and I fall in love with their falling in love, and my heart soars as high as that schmaltzy Harry Nilsson cover of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” when they finally kiss.
Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan bring 1927 Yankees-tier charm and chemistry. Every scene they share is a dinger. More than that, they make the moments they’re not on screen together count. Some of the movie’s best scenes are strictly an actor staring at a computer screen, somehow commanding the camera despite performing the most sedentary task of modern life. Their faces are so good. Each can freeze and thaw fifteen times in a single shot, bringing us deep into their internal lives.
Yet what I find just as enduring about You’ve Got Mail is how much it is a writer’s movie as much as it is an actor’s movie. The script here is not perfect, but it is immensely thoughtful and observant. Co-writer and director Nora Ephron fills the film with deep currents of characters contending with the changing world. Nostalgia clashes with modernity; what’s business and personal bleed together in a world where our professions are our identities; language becomes a commodity, reduced by too many to a transaction and status symbol rather than a vessel of enlightenment and human connection. These ideas collide in the many relationships in the film, nearly all of which are built around the written word in some way.
You’ve Got Mail is a story about two competing bookshop owners who meet online and fall in love as anonymous email pen pals even as they professionally clash. It is a remake of the 1940 Ernst Lubitsch film The Shop Around the Corner, which is the title given to one of the film’s bookshops. (Technically, it’s not a remake, but actually adapted from the same source play. I haven’t seen The Shop Around the Corner, but I’m really eager to see how it shapes the plot in a slower-paced society.) Joe Fox (Hanks) runs a Barnes and Noble-type superstore that uses dirt cheap prices and a coffee bar to strangle Kathleen Kelly’s (Ryan) bespoke children’s bookstore out of business.
It is, of course, an adorably quaint premise in 2022. It’s almost humorous how powerful and merciless the chain bookstore is depicted: Within ten or fifteen years, Amazon and ecommerce would be devouring both of these brick-and-mortar institutions. All of the relentlessly 1998 fashion and technology details, not to mention the product placement, give the movie a temporal specificity that has retroactively made it a period piece. It’s a time capsule of a lost age, giving an extra layer to the film’s retrospective tone.
The movie’s biggest flaw is that it doesn’t quite stick the landing on the plot thread about Fox and Kelly’s professional rivalry. There’s a point to be made about how nostalgia in and of itself isn’t a virtue, but the underlying things that we typically treasure when we remember the good-old-days can and should be adapted to modern life. And You’ve Got Mail does make that point, but you have to squint a bit to see it. Just one more scene pondering the future of small, passionate businesses in a connected world would have gone a long way. Instead, we get Kelly’s career change hand-waved in a few lines as a conclusion that requires the viewer put the pieces together themselves. (Which I suppose is only necessary if any viewers are even thinking about these topics as they swoon through those last few romantic scenes. Nobody’s thinking about the future of the publishing industry when Meg Ryan mutters “we would never” the way she does in the scene before she goes to meet NY152.)
There’s also the slight problem that bugged me in the other Hanks-Ryan-Ephron pairing, Sleepless in Seattle, which is that a lot of the comedy and character dynamics rely upon the crutch of gender role jokes (though much less here than there). The man likes The Godfather; the woman adores Pride and Prejudice. The other just doesn’t get it! What a cliche. (Though it must be noted that You’ve Got Mail is also a retelling of Pride and Prejudice, with some Bennett-Darcy-style dynamics between Kelly and Fox.) Also off-putting: Hanks is tilted a hair too far towards the manipulative side once he pieces together Shopgirl’s identity.
The weaknesses end up not really mattering all that much because everything hums so smoothly. The side characters are a bit of a mixed bag, but everybody brings their own feisty energy and quirks. Parker Posey and Steve Zahn make every movie better, including this one. The movie’s nearly two hours could possibly have been trimmed just a hair, but not much; it zooms by.
It may be, in the scheme of cinema, a small movie, but nothing that is valuable is truly small, and no shout is to the void if there’s someone waiting for the email ping on the other side.
- Review Project: Tom Hanks Retrospective