"Those are powerful words," Joe Fox (Tom Hanks) tells Kathleen Kelly
He's talking about people falling in love over the Internet, and the
familiar electronic icon - and voice - that slightly endears itself by
imitating the real world. Not getting mail has always made one feel
neglected or forgotten, as shown in Kathleen's disappointment when she
fails to receive e-mail at a crucial time from "ny152," the AOL handle
of the person with whom she has been having an online experience. Parts
of "You've Got Mail" are peppered with references to correspondence,
with paper and stamps and envelopes and messages sent via a breathing
mail carrier. This film reminds us that, electrons notwithstanding,
communication is essential to human life, and it will find a way.
One reason "You've Got Mail" is so pleasant is because of its settings.
First, New York City is portrayed as a place in bloom, the camera easing
up through apple blossoms before it enters the windows of its attractive
characters. In fact we witness the changes of a few seasons, throughout
which New York shops, parks and streets come off as charming and safe.
The dwellings are also very desirable: we see the opulent digs of Joe
Fox and the hypertense editor (Patricia Eden, played by Parker Posey)
with whom he is shacked up. Likewise, Kathleen stays in a wonderfully
maintained and furnished flat with the politically outspoken columnist
Frank Navasky (Greg Kinnear). All over the apartments we see burnished
desks, loads of books (mostly hardback, probably purchased by the inch
by set designers!), and hosts of other belongings that give a cozy feel.
This story, after all, is not "The Gift of the Magi."
Then there are the all-important computers. Joe and Kathleen use
laptops, and in an enchanting (director/co-writer Nora Ephron likes that
word, "enchanting") sequence we watch them watching their live-ins go
off to work, clearing the coast for more romantic chatting. The scenes
involving sending and receiving mail are quite well done, with plenty of
voice-overs, nice cross-cutting, and even some interior monologues that
find their ways into words. Nice modern touches here on the source
story, "The Shop Around the Corner."
It's a modern trend that drives the premise too: Joe is the grandson of
old Schuyler Fox (John Randolph, always a pleasure to watch), founder of
Fox and Sons Books, a company that in the 1990's has swallowed up the
profits of many a small independent bookshop. When Joe first meets
Kathleen, he is watching the young children of his father and
grandfather (another wink at modern lifestyles), and he takes them into
the rival bookstore to hear the story lady. This is Kathleen in a
damsel's conical hat and veil, reading to the enthralled kids gathered
around the reading nook. We hear some of her background - her
now-deceased mother started the store in the 1950's, and started
Kathleen working there at age six. Her mother did things like giving a
box of tissues to a little girl purchasing "Anne of Green Gables";
this customer shows up as a grown woman at the closing of Kathleen's
shop. Aside from a few shots of Ryan with teary eyes as she touches the
empty counters of the vacant shop, the filmmakers should be
congratulated for not ending this subplot happily. Kathleen asks a wise
employee of hers (Jean Stapleton in a too-small role), "What would my
mother do?" The answer is that her dead, revered mother would have no
Of course the closing of the quaint bookshop has everything to do with
the conflict that arises between Joe and Kathleen. It's inevitable that
they become acquainted, flirting subtly until she discovers his
identity. The feuding that starts at this point continues throughout
most of the film, turning out delicious ironies. When "shopgirl" takes
up "ny152" on his offer for business advice, "ny152" tells her go "go to
the mattresses," a line from "The Godfather" signifying a fight to the
death. Naturally, the advice resurfaces in a vigorous campaign that
generates all kinds of bad publicity for the pastry-baking, discount
book-peddling superstore owner. The sentiment, "It's not personal, it's
business," takes on new resonance by the end of the story.
Tom Hanks, already the owner of two Academy Awards for Best Actor,
surely deserves another nomination for his work. Probably it will come
for his Captain John Miller in "Saving Private Ryan." Hanks continues
to earn his comparisons to Jimmy Stewart, as a leading man accomplished
in romantic comedy as well as in heavy-themed drama. In his tiniest
expressions we observe how he develops his characters. What makes Hanks
a good deal of his money is the muscles in his face.
Similar to Joe, Kathleen also experiences a change. She is dynamic
because she first learns to say precisely what she wants to say, when
she wants to say it; then she learns that this new eloquence only makes
her hurtful. Ryan is best in her playful and hateful scenes with Hanks.
Unlike Ephron's "Sleepless in Seattle," there are no children caught up
in the flawed lives of the main characters. (The supporting characters
do the job here.) Much of the plot, however, relies on cliches and even
sly approval of betrayals of trust. We know what's going to happen by
the end of the picture, and we know we want it to happen. What redeems
the narrative is risk-taking. Scenes in which Ryan sees herself as a
girl dancing with her mother in the bookstore, and a touchy business of
extreme dramatic irony, are powerful storytelling devices.
Thanks again to the filmmakers for keeping the situations suitable for a
PG rating. It's not crucial, Hollywood, to attract bigger audiences by
dirtying your releases! Take the family along over the holidays, but a
huge, free-refilled bag of popcorn, and enjoy "You've Got Mail."
Copyright © 1998 Mark OHara