By Elizabeth Kerri Mahon
It’s hard to believe that it’s been 25 years since You’ve Got Mail premiered on December 18, 1998. The film was the third and final collaboration between writer/director Nora Ephron and stars Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks, following the runaway success of Sleepless in Seattle, and the less than successful Joe versus the Volcano. The film was inspired by the play Parfumerie by Hungarian playwright Miklos Laszlo and previous adaptations The Shop Around the Corner and In the Good Old Summertime. I confess that I haven’t watched this movie since it first came out, so it was interesting to see if it still holds up after all these years. The answer is yes, and no.
In You’ve Got Mail, Meg Ryan plays Kathleen Kelly who runs a small struggling children’s bookstore called The Shop Around the Corner which she inherited from her mother. The bookstore comes complete with quirky employees (played by Steve Zahn, Heather Burns, and Jean Stapleton who reminisces about her thwarted love affair with Generalissimo Franco). She and her staff are full of knowledge when it comes to books, know all their customers by name, and provide not just service but a love of the written word. Kathleen despises Joe Fox (Tom Hanks) before she even meets him. He’s a third-generation heir of the Fox & Sons bookstore chain that plans to move into the neighborhood threatening to put her bookstore out of business. Kathleen can’t compete with a store that sells thousands of books at a discount and has a café with comfy chairs where customers can sit all day reading.
What they don’t know is that they have been corresponding online, via AOL, oblivious of each other's real identity, even though they are both involved with others. Kathleen’s boyfriend is a rather pretentious columnist (played by Greg Kinnear) who extols the virtues of the typewriter, and Joe’s live-in girlfriend (played by Parker Posey), is a high-powered editor who delights in reading that the head of a publishing company has died. As Kathleen realizes that her story is losing out to the big chain store, she turns for advice and solace to her anonymous online friend--who is, of course, Joe. Eventually Joe learns that the enchanting woman he's involved with online turns out to be his business rival. He struggles to reconcile his real-life dislike for her with the cyber love he's come to feel for ShopGirl (Kathleen’s online handle). His other dilemma? How to tell the woman that he’s come to care for that her anonymous online friend is the man that she hates?
A lot has changed in 25 years. Meeting over AOL seems a bit dated nowadays to anyone born since the millennium, especially the idea of dial-up internet, however there is something delightfully old-fashioned about falling in love via the written word. While the movie could easily have vilified chain bookstores, even Kathleen comes to realize their charm, even if the employees don’t really seem to know anything about books. And chain store vs. independent bookseller seems quaint today when both are struggling for survival against the behemoth that is Amazon.
The movie has some flaws. It is more a love letter to Ephron’s beloved Upper West Side than a romantic comedy. Kathleen and Joe shop at Zabar’s, they both stop for coffee at Starbucks (the movie ignores the fact that Kathleen buys her coffee at a coffee chain instead of independent coffee shop) and live in charming apartment buildings. Joe even keeps a boat at the 79th Street Boat Basin. When Kathleen finally agrees to meet her online beau, they meet up at Café Lalo.
The movie is also full of references to classic literature. Of course, one of Kathleen’s favorite books is Pride & Prejudice (one of the funniest scenes in the movie is Tom Hanks trying to read the book), but the movie also mentions the love affair conducted by letter between the playwright George Bernard Shaw and the actress Mrs. Patrick Campbell.
Kathleen never seems particularly upset over the fact that Joe kept the secret that he was NY152 from her after he learned who she was. While the audience knows that it is inevitable, her breakup with Frank is probably the most mature I’ve ever seen on film as they both realize that they aren’t right for each other. But the biggest problem is the character of Joe. Tom Hanks is charming sure, but Joe is quite dismissive, almost callous, of the damage that he’s doing. Even his right hand, played by Dave Chappelle, wonders if his conscience ever bothers him. At times, he came off as just an arrogant, rich, jerk, casually cruel and manipulative. Joe lies to her from the moment that they meet, he uses the information that he learns from their online correspondence against her, he comes over to her apartment uninvited and doesn’t leave when Kathleen tells him to get out. The film gives Joe an adorable dog, and several scenes with his young aunt and half-brother to show that he’s good with children, and that he’s appealing when he wants to be. The audience is meant to fall for the Joe who unburdens himself to Kathleen, not the man that he appears to be in real life.
While both Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan try hard, it’s hard to invest in the two of them as romantic partners. One of the charms of the previous films is that both leads are at the same level, they are both employees of the same shop. Yes, Kathleen realizes that Joe is a nice guy when they get to know each other after she closes her business but so much is glossed over to get to the happy ending. Joe learns to be a better person by meeting and falling for Kathleen. Kathleen, on the other hand, learns to like big chain stores and that she wants to write children’s books since she has so much free time now that she’s unemployed. I found it a little unbelievable when Kathleen tells him “I wanted it to be you,” when he finally reveals that he’s known all along that she was ShopGirl; “I wanted it to be you so badly.”
Elizabeth Kerri Mahon is a native New Yorker and unabashed history geek. She is the author of Pretty Evil New York: True Stories of Mobster Molls, Violent Vixens, and Murderous Matriarchs and Scandalous Women: The Lives and Loves of History's Most Notorious Women. A pop-culture diva, Elizabeth has written for the popular quiz site Reward TV.com. She is also a professional actress who has played virgins and vixens in everything from Shaw to Shakespeare