You've Got Mail
MPAA Rating : PG
Year of Release : 1998
Stars : Tom Hanks (Joe Fox), Meg Ryan (Kathleen Kelly), Parker Posey (Patricia Eden), Jean Stapleton (Birdie), Steve Zahn (George Pappas), David Chappelle (Kevin Scanlon), Greg Kinnear (Frank Navasky)
"You've Got Mail" is about what you would expect from a reteaming of the three principles--stars Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, and writer/director Nora Ephron--behind 1993's romantic hit, "Sleepless in Seattle." It's light and romantic, funny, charming, and easy to sit through. There's nothing grand or poetic about it, but it's not forceful or overwrought, either. Instead, it's a warm-hearted romantic comedy that's hard to resist, even if you want to.
Tom Hanks stars as Joe Fox, the successor of a huge, Barnes and Noble-ish chain of bookstores called "Fox and Sons Books." When he and his father (Dabney Coleman) decide to build a new store on the West Side of New York, they threaten to put other smaller stores out of business, namely The Shop Around the Corner, a 42-year-old children's bookstore run by Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan), who inherited the store from her mother.
The film thus sets up Joe and Kathleen as capitalistic enemies. However, in "You've Got Mail," these characters lead double lives: those in the real world, and those on-line, where they are known by their handles, NY152 and Shopgirl. You see, Joe and Kathleen are, unbeknownst to them, romantically involved e-mail pen pals who met one night in a chat room. After promising not to reveal their names or any personal information on-line, they started e-mailing each other every day about their thoughts, feelings, worries, and so on.
"You've Got Mail" is some kind of cinematic landmark--the first film to truly incorporate the Internet as a believable narrative device. Some films, such as techno-thrillers like "The Net," have used the Internet as a source of danger and intrigue, but here it is portrayed in an everyday manner. As the Internet and e-mail become more and more a part of the very fabric of our lives, it was only a matter of time before a movie made use of it.
"You've Got Mail" is actually a modernization of a 1940 Jimmy Stewart film called (not ironically I'm sure) "The Shop Around the Corner," where Stewart and Margaret Sullavan were rivaling co-workers and secret pen pals. Director Nora Ephron and her co-writing sister, Delia Ephron, update the story by introducing e-mail instead of old-fashioned pen and paper, and the result is believable and amusing.
Ephron casts Joe and Kathleen's on-line relationship as a sort of digital affair, where they feel the need to hide it from their significant others. Joe is dating a rather distant and business-like woman, Patricia Eden (Parker Posey), while Kathleen is involved with a self-absorbed, intellectual editorial writer named Frank Navasky (Greg Kinnear). Like the Bill Pullman's boyfriend character in "Sleepless in Seattle," both significant others are cast as nice enough people who the audience will dislike just enough so that we don't feel bad when they get dumped so Joe and Kathleen can eventually get together.
Thematically and narratively, "You've Got Mail" is a strict formula film. The entire point is couple formation, and going into it, we know that Hanks and Ryan will end up as a couple. The joy in watching the film is seeing how they come together, and "You've Got Mail" is surprisingly unpredictable in the way it develops the crossing of Joe and Kathleen's real and on-line lives.
Hanks and Ryan are characteristically good in their roles, and the movie gives them opportunities to be more than just warm and cuddly. Hanks' character can be downright ruthless at times, and Ryan's Kathleen is a woman with similar potential. Watching them spar as business rivals and then write about it to each other on-line in carefully disguised form puts an amusing spin on the whole relationship, and truly causes you to wonder: what makes a person who he or she is? That Kathleen hates the physical Joe but loves his on-line counterpart is fodder for an interesting discussion about character duality, if one were inclined to take it that far.
Suffice to say, most will be more than happy to watch "You've Got Mail" for what it is: a lightweight romantic comedy that follows a strict, time-honored formula that works whenever it is well-written, well-directed, and cast with the right actors. In this case, all the criteria are met, and those who are seeking good, old-fashioned romantic comedy will not be disappointed.
©1998 James Kendrick