When it comes to Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, most people seem to gravitate to Sleepless in Seattle, a great romantic comedy but one that suffers from their almost total lack of contact, despite memorable performances and script. Yet my VC and I have always enjoyed You’ve Got Mail even more. While it is based on a play previously adapted to film twice (1940’s The Shop Around the Corner and 1949’s In the Good Old Summertime), in some cases borrowing scenes line for line, the movie is further enhanced by references and parallels to Pride and Prejudice and Nora Ephron’s legendary dialogue. It’s one of those films I’ve seen so often that I practically know it by heart.
The two romantic leads start off unaware of each other’s existence but for trading impressions and insight via the Internet. Yes, the prominence of AOL’s “You’ve got mail” greeting dates the film, but it’s still an update from the letters used in prior versions of the story. Ryan and Hanks may not get along at first and even trade rather cruel barbs, but both of them exude charm and humor, which is simply more evident when they’re not around each other. Ryan is the underdog, owner of a small bookshop on the Upper West Side of New York; she’s friendly with her employees (Heather Burns, Steve Zahn, and Jean Stapleton) and living with a highly opinionated columnist obsessed with typewriters and himself (Greg Kinnear). Meanwhile, Hanks as Joe Fox is heir to a Barnes-and-Noble-style bookstore chain, full of discounts and lattes and a survival-of-the-cheapest mentality. He is superior to some extent, yet takes time out for his younger kin and seems like an overall decent chap. While it’s obvious that the two of them are on opposite sides, as business rivals, their back-and-forth sparring never overshadows the fact that they’re MFEO (go watch Sleepless in Seattle for clarification).
So much of this film’s success lies in the two lead actors, whose mere glances and tone offer endless amusement. There’s a scene in which their respective dates meet each other and trade unconsciously embarrassing remarks; the expressions on Hanks and Ryan’s faces are priceless. When Fox tries writing a conciliatory e-mail with ridiculous excuses, Hanks milks the unforeseen humor from the BACKSPACE button. When the script requires Ryan to respond with three yeses in a row, she fills each one with growing gravitas. They know how to say their lines perfectly, and luckily they are given plenty of notable lines to say, whether it be the meditations on the significance of Starbucks or The Godfather, the discussion of well-timed zingers, or the hilarious guesses on who the mysterious pen pal could be.
On top of all that, the film touches on some serious points, like the unstoppable advance of big-name commercialism over small-scale intimacy. Even though Kathleen and her boyfriend deride Fox as “the destroyer of city books,” when she actually visits the superstore, there’s little to dislike about all the “cheap books and legal addictive stimulants” that attract so many. The main fault is a lack of passion and knowledge in the employees (specifically Chris Messina in an early role), the personal customer connection lost amid the endless aisles. I’ll admit I enjoy visiting Barnes & Noble and Books-a-Million (and Borders before they closed), but there’s something special about the well-worn shelves and comforting appeal of the “Shops around the Corner” that are still surviving, as well as a sense of loss when they fold. (See 84 Charing Cross Road for similar themes.)
Full of enduring quotes and droll character moments, You’ve Got Mail is among my favorite romantic comedies, an underseen gem and some of Ephron’s best work.Best lines: (Kathleen, online) “So much of what I see reminds me of something I read in a book, when shouldn’t it be the other way around?” (Joe, discussing his handle NY152 with Kathleen) “N-Y-one-five-two. One hundred and fifty-two. He’s a hundred and fifty-two years old. He’s had one hundred and fifty-two moles removed, so now he’s got one hundred fifty-two pock marks on his… on his face.” (Kathleen) “The number of people who think he looks like Clark Gable.” (Joe) “One hundred and fifty-two people who think he looks like a Clark Bar.” (Joe) “I like Patricia. I love Patricia. Patricia makes coffee nervous.” Rank: 60 out of 60
© 2015 S. G. Liput
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