You've Got Mail (United States, 1998)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Tom Hanks can act. You need look no further than this year's Saving Private Ryan for proof of that. Meg Ryan can also act. For supporting evidence, check out Prelude to a Kiss and Courage Under Fire. However, in Nora Ephron's latest romantic comedy, You've Got Mail (an update of Ernst Lubitsch's 1940 movie, The Shop Around the Corner), all that's required of these two popular performers is that they effervesce. Any acting that goes on is incidental. Hanks and Ryan were hired for two reasons: both are instantly likable and, as proven in two previous outings (Joe Versus the Volcano and Sleepless in Seattle), they work well together. In their quest to assure that You've Got Mail is adored by movie-goers, the film makers have spared no expense.

Actually, Hanks is playing one of his least-agreeable recent characters. Joe Fox, part owner of the Fox Books Superstore chain (a Barnes & Noble clone), is a cold businessman who puts the competition out of business without a second thought. As things develop, Joe's character follows a Scrooge-like arc. He isn't haunted by ghosts, but events gradually open his eyes to the evil of his ways, and he undergoes an attitude change. By the final reel, Joe gives us exactly the kind of Jimmy Stewart personality we expect from someone played by Hanks. (Note: Stewart essayed this part in The Shop Around the Corner, opposite Margaret Sullavan.) Kathleen Kelly, on the other hand, is pure Meg Ryan, from her chirpy pep to the tilt of her head. And can anyone cry quite like Ryan? Kathleen, who owns a small children's bookstore called The Shop Around the Corner, finds herself in direct conflict with Joe, whose nearby superstore is stealing all of her customers.

But that's not the whole story. To this standard rivals-who-fall-for-each-other tale, Ephron adds a great opening credits sequence (a view of "cyberManhattan") and a heavy dose of fate, the element that made her Sleepless in Seattle a $125 million blockbuster. For, while Joe and Kathleen are locking horns in business, their on-line alter-egos ("NY152" and "Shopgirl") are falling in love. The Sleepless angle is illustrated perfectly in an early scene, when Joe and Kathleen's physical paths criss-cross, but the two don't meet (at this point, they know each other via e-mail but not in person). However, unlike in Sleepless (and this year's Next Stop, Wonderland, which has a similar premise), we are given a chance to see the two romantic leads interact before the final ten minutes. Consequently, You've Got Mail is the more satisfying film.

You've Got Mail is appropriately rated PG, because, while Hanks and Ryan play well off of one another, there are no sparks. This film is about pure, old-fashioned romance, unsullied by things like lust and sex. Such was the case with Sleepless in Seattle, and Ephron, reminded of her success with that movie (and longing to erase the sting of two failures, Mixed Nuts and Michael), has elected to reproduce it here. Fortunately, there are enough differences that this particular journey into the realm of romantic coincidence doesn't seem like a re-tread. And the idea that two people who exchange intimate e-mail could pass each other unknowingly on the street is inherently interesting.

With all of the cyber affairs begun in chat rooms across the world, it was only a matter of time before a mainstream movie used an on-line romance as a plot device. On a technical level, the movie is reasonably accurate (although many of the characters' e-mail sessions seem like extended advertisements for AOL). But there's still a heavy element of fantasy here. I mean, how likely is it that two on-line partners are going to end up looking like Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks?

Although the success of You've Got Mail rests squarely on the shoulders of Hanks and Ryan, they are given able support by a diverse cast. Greg Kinnear plays Frank, Kathleen's technophobe boyfriend. Former independent movie queen Parker Posey, in a rare mainstream role, is Patricia, Joe's hyperkinetic significant other (his description of her: "Patricia makes coffee nervous"). David Chappelle, Dabney Coleman, Steve Zahn, and Jean Stapleton all have minor parts.

You've Got Mail is peppered with Ephronisms (the kind of exchanges that characterized both When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle). In Sleepless, the movie that embodied a woman's fantasies was An Affair to Remember; for men, it was The Dirty Dozen. Here, the approach is the same, but the text is different. For Kathleen, Pride and Prejudice is the Bible. In Joe's case, The Godfather is "the sum of all wisdom." For the most part, the script, despite being predictable, is smart and quirky, although the final line of the film, delivered by Ryan to Hanks, is a miscalculation. The punctuation mark would have been there without the neon sign to point it out.

You've Got Mail has the virtue of delivering exactly what's expected from it. It's a feel-good movie that offers enough comedy and romance to warm the heart without risking a sentimental overdose. Fans of Sleepless in Seattle will almost certainly fall in love with the similar-yet-different nature of the production; only die-hard cynics will be turned off by all of the unabashed good will. If there are messages to be found here, they're that romance is still thriving in our technological era, and that well-written romantic comedies starring Hanks and Ryan don't represent much of a gamble for the financing studio.

You've Got Mail (United States, 1998)

Director: Nora Ephron
Cast: Tom Hanks, Meg Ryan, Greg Kinnear, David Chappelle, Dabney Coleman, Parker Posey, Jean Stapleton, Steve Zahn
Screenplay: Nora Ephron & Delia Ephron
Cinematography: John Lindley
Music: George Fenton
U.S. Distributor: Warner Brothers
Run Time: 1:57
U.S. Release Date: 1998-12-18
MPAA Rating: "PG"
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1