You’ve Got Mail

Synopsis: Someone You Pass On The Street May Already Be The Love Of Your Life.

You’ve Got Mail delivers all the wit, charm and warmth you’d expect from a reunion of the stars, and director ofless in Seattle. Greg Kinnear, Parker Posey, Jean Stapleton and more talented co-stars add perfect support to this valentine to modern – to modem – romance in which superstore book chain magnate Hanks and cozy children’s bookshop owner Ryan are anonymous e-mail cyberpals who fall head-over-laptops in love, unaware they are combative business rivals. You’ve got rare Hollywood magic when You’ve Got Mail.

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You’ve Got Mail 7.5

eyelights: Tom Hanks. Meg Ryan. its basic conceit. its clever dialogues.
eyesores: the characters’ dishonesty. the shameless product placement. its weaker third act.

“I wanted it to be you. I wanted it to be you so badly.”

Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan made three films together. Everyone forgets the abysmal ‘Joe Versus the Volcano’, but everyone remembers ‘Sleepless in Seattle‘, which was a huge hit and has become the reference for rom-coms (though, really, it wouldn’t have existed if not for ‘When Harry Met Sally‘). Given how popular their second pairing was, it was only a matter of time before they got together again.

Their third (and, to this point, last) pairing was 1998’s ‘You’ve Got Mail’.

Based on the 1940 classic ‘The Shop Around the Corner‘ (which was also James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan third pairing), ‘You’ve Got Mail’ tells the story of two email “penpals” who are falling in love through their daily correspondence, but who can’t stand each other in real life; having kept their exchanges free of personal specifics, they have no idea that they are each other’s worst enemies.

It’s a great idea, and it’s got the making of a lovely romantic comedy, but ‘You’ve Got Mail’ has an underlying nastiness about it that overcasts the picture: Joe is a multimillionaire who is opening up a book superstore right on the corner opposite Kathleen’s small neighbourhood bookstore (a shop that’s been in the family for 42 years!), and his operation is threatening her livelihood.

Whereas the original found Alfred and Klara as rivals in the same shop, which forced them to interact, this one finds them business rivals and there’s much more at stake. And when Joe inevitably finds out that Kathleen is the woman he’s disliked so much this whole time, he begins to manipulate her to win her affection. There’s something unsavoury about the dishonesty of the whole set-up.

It doesn’t help that both Joe and Kathleen are in relationships and are secretly corresponding with each other. The correspondence itself isn’t an issue, but when you’re hiding it from your partner, it means that there’s something more going on – and it makes you wonder if it’s infidelity. In fact, Kathleen even asks one of her employees about it. The answer: it isn’t if there’s no virtual sex.

Seriously?!

In the original (and apparently in the other iterations of the play that it’s based on), the characters were single, which made their exchange less loaded, more charming. And what little manipulation that Alfred did was offset by the fact that Klara was being extremely mean to him – which itself was later explained. Here, Kathleen is mean to Joe, but feels bad for it; she only means well.

So Joe’s behaviour is hard to accept.

Thankfully, Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan are absolutely delightful here: Hanks channels is early self, bringing out the playful, goofy persona we knew in ‘Bachelor Party‘, ‘Splash‘ and ‘Big‘. Meanwhile, Ryan is so adorable that anything she does has a tinge of sweetness to it. It’s probably (all material aside) their best pairing, though it’s probably true that they weren’t asked to stretch much here.

The rest of the cast is also terrific:

  • Greg Kinnear plays Frank, Kathleen’s partner, an intellectual who thinks that the written word is a godsend. He’s such a purist that he’s got a small collection of typewriters. He’s her biggest fan, and Kinnear makes that evident.
  • Parker Posey is a treat as Patricia, Joe’s partner, a book publisher who appears nice and friendly at first glance, but who has a hidden mean streak and superficiality. I’ve rarely seen Posey play nice on screen so this was super fun to see.
  • Dave Chapelle plays Joe’s assistant and best friend. He gets a terrific moment when, in a nod to the original film, Joe asks him to look inside the coffee shop to see what his penpal looks like and he has to break the news that she’s Kathleen.
  • Heather Burns, Steve Zahn and Jean Stapleton all have parts as Kathleen’s supportive employees, and Dabney Coleman and John Randolph play Joe’s father and grandfather, who started the business and marries compulsively – and young.

They’re all great.

The material is also quite good. Nora Ephron has often had a knack for dialogue and it obviously gets the spotlight here. Yes, some of it may seem a bit saccharine if taken out of context, but we’re talking about two people falling in love through the written word. Love letters are frequently embellished and a little too perfect, and Ephron captured that perfectly without going overboard.

What helped is that much of what Joe and Kathleen write is read out loud (in overdub, as internal monologues, not out loud to themselves) by the stars. It adds dimensionality to their exchanges, making them feel more real. Plus which, both Hanks and Ryan have a terrific delivery and speaking voice, which added warmth to these moments. So, as neatly tailored as the emails were, they felt realistic.

The picture still stumbled in some places, though, like when Joe helps Kathleen out at the grocery store when she got in the cash only aisle with no money on hand. The way he disarmed the cashier felt artificial, utterly fake. And the night of the secret penpals’ first meeting was pretty awkward. Or when he shows up at her house with flowers while she’s sick and makes himself at home.

Brrr… creepy.

But it’s fully compensated for by other moments, like the montage that shows the duo avoiding each other in the neighbourhood, or when Kathleen and Frank break-up – fully amicably, as they discover that neither are in love. They just joke about it and then ask each other if there’s anyone else, reverting from partners to friends instantaneously. It’s a little too facile, but it’s still nice.

And it sure was cute seeing him leave her house with his beloved typewriter.

There are some interesting dialogues, like when Joe rails against all the coffee-goers, whom he claims have no sense of self – so this whole gourmet coffee thing makes them feel like they do because it forces them to make a half-dozen decisions for each coffee they buy. This actually made sense to me and it was nice to have someone shed light on the reason why people are so hooked on their coffee.

…aside for the caffeine fix, that is.

Unfortunately, the picture is rife with product placement, from AOL to Starbucks, both of which we see or hear about far too often in the course of the picture. I hate that, because it would be easy to invent a company or product for the movie instead of giving the spotlight to the ones who cough up the biggest amount of dough – in order to be normalized in a mass-produced slice of entertainment. Ugh.

That was a blight on the picture.

But then there’s the third act, which revolves around the demise of Kathleen’s bookstore, The Shop Around the Corner; it was sad to see her walk off in the night, alone, having closed her shop for the last time. This was a sign that the magic was over, as Nora Ephron seemed to scramble to give Joe and Kathleen some meaning and find ways to pull them together. Without the rivalry, what works?

What insulted me the most the first time I saw this picture was the fact that Kathleen falls for Joe even though he’s been deceiving her this whole time. Doesn’t she feel manipulated by him? Doesn’t she distrust him at least a little bit? Doesn’t it offend her that he’s the cause of her shop’s decimation? Or is she, as any good woman should, allowing this sacrifice for the love of a man?

Honestly, I would have accepted it more if the roles were reversed, because it’d be less conventional. But, even then, I’d have a difficult time buying it. Surely there’d be some resentment – especially when one factors in the manipulation. Instead, Kathleen coos “I wanted it to be you” at Joe and all is made well with the world. Seriously? There’s no conflict in her heart and/or mind at all?

So that dampened a picture that was relatively charming up until that point.

It’s not to say that ‘You’ve Got Mail’ didn’t remain somewhat enjoyable, ultimately, but it really put a strain on any goodwill that was invested in it til then. Thankfully, the rest of the picture contains enough lovely moments to make it worth seeing anyway. And the cast really steps up to the plate, elevating the already-solid material. This may not be a classic, but it’s better than most.

And sometimes, that’s all you need.

Date of viewing: December 27, 2016

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