Director: Nora Ephron
Writer: Nora Ephron & Delia Ephron; based on Parfumerie by Miklós László
Cinematographer: John Lindley
Producer: Nora Ephron and Lauren Shuler Donner
by Jon Cvack
After watching Jerry MaGuire (1996), I was left wanting to return to another rom-com that I liked but didn’t necessarily love; hoping that it’s age might open up new insights. I had last seen You’ve Got Mail maybe five or six years ago; back when the technologies were not yet vintage quality, but rather embarrassing early social media devices; in this case America Online (aka AOL) and its 90s classic “You’ve Got Mail” greeting (should be lucky enough), that for just a smidge in modern times, truly meant you had a piece of electronic mail from an actual person.
You’ve Got Mail is the weakest in Nora Ephron’s rom com trio (more in the sense of a fantastic DVD three pack offered at Target than official trio); the other two being Sleepless in Seattle (1993) and When Harry Met Sally (1989), both the best romantic comedy of their respective decades. I’ve seen You’ve Got Mail at least half a dozen times, discovering a great overall premise that never seemed to reach the emotional rigor of its brethren. When Harry Met Sally is about growing up in search of love, slowing building a relationship from friendship into love, and Sleepless in Seattle is about the heartbreak and magic of rediscovering love.
You’ve Got Mail opens up with what now looks like a deliberately awful 3D animation of New York City, in which the buildings and cars are nothing more than block shaped, single colored elements that look like the most fundamental level of what a professional animation would one day become and probably cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to create; ending on a brownstone which then fades into actual footage as the camera raises up and through the window where we see Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan) interact with her left wing political and partner Frank Navasky (Greg Kinnear). The moment he leaves, Kathleen opens her laptop, logs on, has to wait for the dial tone and connection, and gets online to discover she’s got mail from NYC155, a person she met in an over 30 chat room.
I believe it was 2018’s Hollywood Round Table that Tom Hanks mentioned how, should he be able to choose a different career, he’d like to be the guy who writes the daily ‘Around the Town’ column which, I assume, would offer daily observations on life; something a more sober version of Californication. It’s knowing this fact that I appreciated his character as Joe Fox; a rich and successful heir to Fox Books; ostensibly functioning as a Borders Bookstore (more on this later), whose father Nelson Fox (Dabney Coleman) cares for nothing beyond the profit and putting all the neighborhood bookstores out of business to suck up their customers; now onto his third or fourth wife and having a boy who’s five; while Joe’s grandfather also got married to a younger woman and had a daughter who’s about ten and therefore are now Joe’s aunt and uncle.
Kathleen works at The Shop Around the Corner (an allusion to the original 1940 film), which specializes in young adult and children’s books, along with providing readings and classes. She’s joined by three co-workers, the flamboyant neighborhood legend Birdie Conrad (Jean Stapleton), the bitter academic and possible dropout or graduate student George Pappas (Steve Zahn), and the neurotic Christina Plutzker (Heather Burns); all who vow to help her preserve the shop; all created and performed with some distinct personalities that draw you into each scene; such as when Kathleen telling Christina about her online relationship evolves to cyber sex and Birdie’s perfectly timed entrance.
Kathleen and Joe have never met each other, but for any person coming of age with the nascent internet, crushing on someone where most of the relationship is based on email or instant messaging, you understand the attraction. It’s their wit and view of the world that links them together; not to mention the subtle fact of meeting each other in an over 30 chatroom (even though Joe is over 40).
Before learning who the other person is Joe meets Kathleen at her bookstore, refusing to introduce himself but rather coming across as a charming man with his two kids, later meeting her at a party where she discovers he’s Joe Fox. We soon discover that he’s actually a fairly aggressive businessman, capable of veering between heartless capitalism and the virtues of art and literature. Amidst the chaos, Kathleen attempts to meet to her online crush, and Joe, walking up with his business manager Kevin Jackson (Dave Chappelle), discover it’s Kathleen; pissed that the person he had such strong feelings for was the person who had the gaul to complain that he was putting her out of business. Nevertheless, he enters the coffee shop, pretending like he doesn’t know what’s going on, sits down, and in a dagger of an interaction, Kathleen tells him to please go; heartbroken and frustrated, she’s waiting for someone and doesn’t want to talk to him. He then finds another table and leaves her alone for a couple seconds before turning around again and engaging.
So begins an interesting, but fairly creepy game; in which Joe-online creates an excuse to explain to Kathleen via email that he’s in the middle of a project, while Joe-in real life attempts to woo Kathleen, although his bookstore is rapidly putting her out of business; culminating in the store getting shut down.
Throughout this, Joe maintains his relationship with the grating book editor Patricia Eden (Parker Posey), whose every word is like glass under your nails; leading to the two breaking up shortly after Kathleen’s shop goes out of business. Meanwhile, Kathleen’s relationship to Frank is rocky from the get go, and yet I had completely failed to see how masterful Greg Kinnear is in the role; playing the self-absorbed liberal newsman on an alleged moral crusade, craving fame and attention more than any meaningful relationship or mission. I’ve lately been wondering about how someone becomes a pundit on MSNBC, Fox News, etc, and the Ephrons do a masterful job of showing us someone in the nascent stages of that journey. Soon Frank and Kathleen part ways in one of the most memorable and lovely break up scenes ever shot. It leaves Kathleen alone, with a possible offer from Patricia to edit some children’s books.
So begins the third act as Frank soon visits her while she’s sick, apologizing once again for putting her out of business. The two start hanging out more regularly while Kathleen keeps talking to Fox-online. She soon tells Frank-reality about the relationship, and while Tom Hanks does a great job playing the friend-zoned crush, it’s obviously bizarre that he’s attempting to woo her from himself; which seems like a game that could only possibly give him pleasure, as I’m sure anyone - such as his friend Kevin - would disapprove.
Frank-online then hits her up to meet once again and she agrees, meeting Frank-reality first who ends their meeting by saying that he wishes things could have been different. Kathleen gets ready and heads off to central park where Frank-online shows up and Kathleen gets teared up, saying she was hoping it’d be Frank-reality; which is kind of sad because it means that her feelings to Frank-online had faded, leaving you to wonder if Frank-reality deliberately changed that persona.
And that’s where the overall message of the film gets a bit odd. Ultimately, it’s about a woman who falls for a greedy man who puts her multi-generation family bookstore out of business; all because he’s charming, which could arguably be a type of sociopathy. Think of Michael Douglas, Richard Gere, or even James Gandolfini in this role, and how weird the conclusion would be. What makes it work is Tom Hanks, and Tom Hanks alone, who’s regarded as the nicest celebrity in the world.
Aside from that strange last act, the movie remains a deeply prescient film; one that we’re able to look back on as a harbinger of things to come. American Online was the first social media site that most people were addicted to. The evolution was similar to Facebook. Parents were at first resistant, and then later succumbed and became all the more consumed. They were the first to share Fake News via chain mail. I recall when a letter from my crazy uncle would be just one long message with 48 pt bold red font ranting about immigrants or Obama. To think Facebook is what exists just twenty years later leaves me wondering how much we’ll look back at 2020 and its state of technology with similar degrees of condescension.
More and more, I enjoy films that serve as both historical documents and a document of history, as I discussed in Triumph of the Will (1935), which isn’t to compare the two, though they are serving similar purposes. When talking about Fox Books, a friend was quick to compare them to Amazon; forgetting that the threat at the time wasn’t Amazon, but Borders and Barnes & Noble; both of which failed to grasp the threat of Amazon’s business model. Similar to Blockbuster’s failure to anticipate Netflix, soon the large chain bookstores would die. It actually seems to revive the cynical ending as Joe Fox would one day too experience his store being closed by a much more powerful competitor. Doesn’t make him any less of a sociopath.
BELOW: As weird as the scene is, a beautiful moment between two Ephron legends
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