[Originally written for Film.com in 1998]
Set the wayback machine to 1998. Parallax View presents reviews of films released 20 years ago, written by our contributors for various papers and websites. Most of these have not been available for years.
I saw You’ve Got Mail in a spanking-new multiplex located in a spanking-new downtown development, a place with an atrium and coffeeshop and Tiffany’s and J. Peterman. It’s the kind of gleaming, upscale mall that drove out (or will drive out) all the little shops and longtime dives that used to define the downtown of a city. It doesn’t really matter what city I’m talking about, because the downtown of my city could now be the downtown of AnyCity, blessed as it is with Planet Hollywood and Old Navy and a Starbucks on every corner.
The new development also has a Barnes & Noble at ground level. Well, gee, how ironic. You’ve Got Mail is about the owner of Barnes & Noble – er, “Fox Books” – opening a new megastore on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Joe Fox (Tom Hanks) is untroubled by the fact that his new store will drive the little booksellers out of business, including The Shop Around the Corner, a funky children’s book nook. It’s owned by Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan), who declares war on Fox and his heartless methods.
What Joe and Kathleen don’t know is that they’ve been carrying on an Internet romance. With each other. Anonymously. Though Joe has a girlfriend (stylish book editor Parker Posey) and Kathleen has her own beau (earnest New York Observer columnist Greg Kinnear), they scurry out of bed every morning to find out what their secret e-mail buddy has written. In other words, this movie is an electronic update of Ernst Lubitsch’s wonderful 1940 film, The Shop Around the Corner. The audience knows that these two are meant for each other, but many obstacles must be hurdled before that can happen.
These hurdles are executed with a dutiful blandness. Director Nora Ephron gathers some decent people, including Dabney Coleman and John Randolph as Fox patriarchs, Jean Stapleton and Steve Zahn as Kathleen’s bookshop pals, and Dave Chappelle as a Fox lieutenant. (Including a young black man as a buddy is apparently intended to lend Tom Hanks a bit of street cred. But why?) Many of these people, including the one-note characters played by Posey and Kinnear, are probably based on Manhattanites in Ephron’s circle, and perhaps they will be amusing to people within that circle. The rest of us will find them deadly dull.
Which means that the film is thrown on the shoulders of Hanks and Ryan, who are encouraged to be as animated as possible. So Meg Ryan minces and bounces and screws her nose up in that cute way she has, and Tom Hanks puts on the antic disposition that he usually saves for the Letterman show, and it’s all just way, way too much. These actors have charm, and Ryan finally gets into a groove when she turns nasty, dressing down Hanks while she waits for her blind date to show up. The movie won’t hurt Hanks’s status as The American Guy; his explanation of The Godfather as “the source of all wisdom” sounds exactly right for men of a certain age, the generation that wasn’t especially impressed by Star Wars. But he seems to know this effort isn’t clicking.
Nora Ephron, meanwhile, still can’t direct her way out of a paper bag. Why would you give a saucy one-liner to an old pro like Jean Stapleton, and then shoot the scene so that the back of Stapleton’s head is all we see at that moment? (Did anyone look at the Lubitsch movie – or any Lubitsch movie – before they shot this thing?) The most embarrassing irony of the film is that Ephron seems unaware of the contradictions within her story, including the likelihood that the Meg Ryan character would probably be one of those people who refuses to use e-mail, because she loves the ink and paper and stamp-licking of old-fashioned correspondence. Like e-mail, this movie is a message delivery system, no more.