Movie Review: You’ve Got Mail (1998)

Fine sister movie to Sleepless in Seattle __ 8/10

You've Got MailKathleen Kelly: [writing to “NY152”] People are always saying that change is a good thing. But all they’re really saying is that something you didn’t want to happen at all… has happened. My store is closing this week. I own a store, did I ever tell you that? It’s a lovely store, and in a week it’ll be something really depressing, like a Baby Gap. Soon, it’ll be just a memory. In fact, someone, some foolish person, will probably think it’s a tribute to this city, the way it keeps changing on you, the way you can never count on it, or something. I know because that’s the sort of thing I’m always saying. But the truth is… I’m heartbroken. I feel as if a part of me has died, and my mother has died all over again, and no one can ever make it right.

Directed by Nora Ephron
Screenplay by Nora Ephron
Play by Miklós László

Tom Hanks … Joe Fox
Meg Ryan … Kathleen Kelly
Greg Kinnear … Frank Navasky
Parker Posey … Patricia Eden
Jean Stapleton … Birdie Conrad
Steve Zahn … George Pappas
Heather Burns … Christina Plutzker
Dave Chappelle … Kevin Jackson
Dabney Coleman … Nelson Fox

You’ve Got Mail is a Nora Ephron movie based on the play written by Miklós László, which later became the 1940 movie starring Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan called The Shop around the Corner. Interestingly, that earlier movie has an IMDb ranking of 8.1 versus the less than stellar IMDb ranking of 6.3 for Mail. The core idea of both movies is that two people communicate, each without knowing who the other is—the 1940 movie uses mail, the 1998 movie uses email (which was just beginning to become widespread in America with dialup Internet access)—and the person they are actually communicating with is someone they do know and do not like.

Mail has an additional kicker, however, which may even be considered the leitmotif or ‘theme’ of the movie. That idea is expressed in Kathleen Kelly’s (Meg Ryan’s) statement on change above. That statement, which comes toward the end of the movie, reflects a continuing common angst among Kathleen and her peers—and any working person or local independent business of that time or ours—that the ‘work is love made visible’ crowd is being crowded out by the corporate ‘we will crush your faces’ crowd.

Kathleen is the owner of a small bookstore in New York City named, not coincidentally, The Shop Around the Corner. Joe Fox (Tom Hanks) is the leader of a nationwide chain of book superstores, one of which is opening a few blocks from Kathleen’s place. The Fox family is highly publicized, so Kathleen and her crew of (mainly children’s) book lovers find out fairly quickly who Joe is… and feel the animosity rising, along with the fear of being rendered no longer existing.

Yet long before Kathleen and Joe get to know and basically dislike each other, they happen to have inadvertently become email pals. And in that world, they’re two peas in a pod, sharing each other’s deepest thoughts and imaginations. Indeed, especially Kathleen uses her new e-pal to talk about the threat the superstore and scoundrels like Fox pose to her way of life. But Fox shows a different side when he’s emailing Kathleen, his truer side, showing sensitivity, intelligence, and humor. Whether that makes sense given his attributes we see as marshal of the new store is another question. But who cares? May as well suspend disbelief if you have any.

It doesn’t take a genius to see where the plot is going. Will the misunderstanding be resolved and the two young New York souls wind up together? Whatever, for my taste, the two hour movie seems to drag toward the end, I’m inclined to think the editors could have got us to the resolution more adroitly, more ‘impact’fully. You can also wonder whether the people in Joe’s world—mainly his father (Dabney Coleman) and his girlfriend Patricia—and their respective circle of funny foibles contribute to the central idea(s) of the film, or detract.

Again none of this matters too much, at least not to me. Because you have the two principal actors who are arguably the finest romantic comedy couple of our generation: Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. Virtually every man and every woman identifies with them so naturally, as if they truly exist. Hanks plays his role authentically, creating a strong central force despite the writers’ dillydallying with Fox’s nature. Ryan—early hints of inexpert facial nips and tucks seem to be evident—conveys sadness with soulful indomitability as no other screen woman I can imagine. Nora Ephron is clearly writing and directing to Kathleen Kelly, and I feel Meg knocks Kathleen out of the park. Brilliant.

Let me comment especially on Ryan’s amazing talent, because she makes the movie. She does so by capturing with grace and humanity the denouement of a small business that was handed down by her mother. No, Meg could not do her job without the writer and director, but one wonders how much she contributed to the framing of the key statements, such as the one above about ‘change.’ Particularly interesting is Kathleen’s ‘boyfriend’ Frank (Greg Kinnear): He is a man of words, yet his words carry no action… as when he compliments Kathleen with a flowery phrase early on rather than show his affection physically or emotionally.

Kathleen, on the other hand, carries her heart on her sleeve when she’s on the job with her coterie of ‘family’ and in her emails to NY152. The difference between her words and Frank’s is she lacks self-indulgence or self-pity or self-puffery: she (via the artistry of Meg Ryan) comes through in her phrasing as a kindness bestowed on the universe—irrespective of trying times. Consider the following:

Kathleen Kelly: writing to “NY152”] 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.

Read that a few times, and ask whether the writer is pondering eternal mysteries in the path of a genuine heroine. Kathleen is definitely the brave, pure, good natured soul of a woman a heroic man could fall in love with. Most of such quotes emerge in the context of the conflict between the gargantuan, corporate Fox borg and her humane little shop. The gems, however, transcend her predicament and lie quietly in the prose we hear her sending out to NY152 and the world at large. These twinkling, benevolent thoughts are more than worth the price of admission. They overcome the handicaps and make the movie… yes, with some help from Joe Fox’s perspectives (Hanks’ fine work).

Let’s end by considering the theme of small and preciously intimate (Shop around the Corner) being consumed by large and manglingly unconscious (Fox Books). The writer, Ephron, shows ambivalence on that issue; for example, she bends over backwards to suggest in a later scene that a bookstore like Fox would have a thriving children’s section, complete with real human interaction. I don’t think so, Nora. Maybe one in a hundred of such stores, but only thru a fluke. These centralized behemoths are indeed the antithesis SunFLOWerof local independent business… and alien to independent, caring humanity. But your overly generous scene is a contrivance I accept in the context of the romance; Mail would unravel being politically accurate.

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