You're crazy about him...
Yes I am.
Then why don't you run off with him? What are you waiting for?
I don't actually know him.
We only know each other... oh god... you're not going to believe this...
Let me guess... from the Internet.
You have mail.
Very powerful words.
The premise of "You've Got Mail" has been around for awhile. Having two characters who can't stand each other or are strangers in real life, only to be intimate in another medium (such as the telephone or via letter writing) has served as the basis of several romantic comedies in the past. 1940's "The Shop Around the Corner", upon which "You've Got Mail" was based, had two antagonistic coworkers who didn't realize that they were each other's secret pen pal. This was then remade into a Judy Garland musical in 1949 called "In the Good Old Summertime", which changed the setting to a music shop but essentially kept the story the same. The 1959 sex comedy "Pillow Talk" had Rock Hudson and Doris Day sharing a 'party line' without knowing each other's identity. And in 1996, the independent film "Stuck" tackled the ambiguity of relationships with e-mail correspondents 'Mars' and 'Venus' unwittingly dating each other in real life, and then asking one another for on-line advice on the relationship. Now, in 1998, comes "You've Got Mail", an America Online commercial disguised as a romantic comedy.
Don't you love New York in the fall? It makes me want to buy school supplies. I would send you a bouquet of newly-sharpened pencils if I knew your name and address. On the other hand, this not knowing has its charms.
This latest approach on the romantic comedy sub-genre has New Yorkers Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan of "City of Angels") and Joe Fox (Tom Hanks of "Saving Private Ryan") corresponding via e-mail. And while they share their innermost secrets and muse over their favorite books and movies, they have never connected in real life, despite the fact that they live in the same neighborhood, buy their coffee in the same Starbucks, and constantly pass each other in the streets. Unfortunately, even if they were to meet in real life, their diametrically-opposed professional objectives would quickly negate any chance of a romantic relationship. Kathleen runs 'The Shop Around the Corner', a cozy little children's bookstore with knowledgeable and caring staff, while Joe is the insensitive heir of Fox Books, a predatory conglomerate chain of bookstores that threatens to put Kathleen out of business.
I must warn you that when you finally have the pleasure of saying the thing you mean to say at the moment you mean to say it, remorse inevitably follows. Do you think we should meet?
Meet? Oh my god...
However, as the on-line relationship between 'Shopgirl' (Kathleen's e-mail handle) and 'NY152' (Joe's on-line name) intensifies, bringing them closer together and improving their chances of meeting, so does the rivalry between their respective businesses, which threatens to drive them apart before they even realize. Further complicating matters, the two Internet soulmates are involved in hollow relationships: Joe lives with an overly aggressive editor (Parker Posey of "Clockwatchers"), while Kathleen lives with an egotistical newspaper columnist (Greg Kinnear of "As Good As It Gets"). Will Shopgirl and NY152 ever meet and live happily ever after? Or are they forever doomed to be anonymous on-line correspondents, or even worse, bitter business rivals?
The film's tone is light and breezy, which is what you would expect from a Hanks-Ryan picture. Granted, Hanks and Ryan both share an uncommon screen chemistry, and it is a joy to watch "You've Got Mail" on the basis of seeing these two actors reunited for the first time since "Sleepless in Seattle". Hanks' character may be a shark in a suit, but he is still able to exude boyish innocence and charm, making him instantly likable, while Ryan is lively and exuberant in her role. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the rest of the cast, whose poorly written parts result in thankless throwaway roles.
Despite the charisma of Hanks and Ryan, the film is sabotaged by weaknesses in the script and Nora Ephron's direction, resulting in a rambling and emotionally unsatisfying effort. The main problem with "You've Got Mail" is the surprising lack of tension and conflict, despite the premise's intriguing set-up. While the script does throw in some complications in the relationship between Kathleen and Joe, the obstacles they must overcome are quickly resolved without much consequence. In your good romantic comedy, there must be an intense struggle for the would-be couple to overcome, often from a displacement of loyalties. By forcing its protagonists to painfully choose between two equally-compelling but mutually exclusive alternatives, such as a once-in-a-lifetime promotion and a once-in-a-lifetime love affair, the emotional resonance of the story is enhanced, and the greater the pay-off in the resolution.
While "You've Got Mail" seems to set up potential obstacles very well by making its romantic leads cut-throat business rivals, this point of contention ends up being brushed aside a little too easily. Instead of having Joe confront the predatory business practices of his father's (Dabney Coleman) bookstore chain, the issue ends up becoming sidestepped without any measurable sacrifices having to be made by Joe. Other potential complications, such as Joe and Kathleen's existing relationships, also end up being dismissed with little fanfare or effort. So instead of all the obstacles for Joe and Kathleen building up into a heart-wrenching climax, they end up falling by the wayside in an anti-climactic manner, with no sense of urgency or sense of accomplishment.
Furthermore, Nora and Delia Ephron's screenplay seems to dwell on too many frivolous trivialities, and this uneconomical use of screen time ends up grinding the film to a halt on several occasions, most notably in the first hour. While it is important to establish the idiosyncrasies of the two romantic leads and give the audience a chance to 'fall in love' with them, some of the minutiae delved into end up being completely unnecessary in advancing the plot. Furthermore, some of the pointless plot tangents end up taking the film's focus away from Joe and Kathleen.
The film's third act is also problematic, as it seems to actually be two acts squeezed into one. Instead of tidying up loose ends and resolving the outstanding issues between Joe and Kathleen, Nora and Delia Ephron decide to develop the story further, in essence adding a fourth act. Unfortunately, this fourth act seems misplaced (as though it was hastily and awkwardly tacked on at the last minute) and relies on a hard-to-swallow change of heart on the part of Kathleen.
Finally, there is one problem that all films about computers suffer from: how to visualize two people communicating via computer screens. It quickly becomes tiresome to watch two people typing each other messages, which was a problem that both "Jumping Jack Flash" and "Stuck" suffered from. While Nora Ephron circumvents some of this through the use of voice-over and insert scenes, she still has too many scenes where the characters are talking as they type. As a result, the audience is left... waiting... as... the... characters... finish... typing... their... sentences, which noticeably saps momentum from the story.
In essence, "You've Got Mail" certainly has the ingredients for a feel-good and lighthearted romantic comedy, but the end result is somewhat disappointing. While it is certain to drum up business for America Online (which takes center stage for much of the film), the missed opportunities, uneconomical storytelling, and lackluster emotional build-up make it more like a chore to watch.