' ' Cinema Romantico: Some Drivel On...You've Got Mail

Tuesday, May 05, 2020

Some Drivel On...You've Got Mail

“You’ve Got Mail” is a movie, as all movies are, of its moment, not a time capsule buried in the Hollywood vaults only meant to be unburied and screened 22 years later. Still, it’s a fascinating snapshot of an era when going online and being offline were distinctly separate, a dividing line heralded in that wistful AOL dial-up sound, as quaint to a 2020 viewer as, say, an MCI long distance calling plan. More than that, though, Nora Ephron’s turn of the century rom com remembers when a big discount bookstore like Barnes & Noble was the enemy, out to squash its independent brethren, and not itself an in-person outlier in danger of being squashed by online retailers. Willa Paskin noted this irony for her Slate podcast the Decoder Ring, noting “’You’ve Got Mail’ could not imagine a world in which all brick and mortar stores are under threat from the Internet except for maybe the ones that are as singular as The Shop Around the Corner.” Then again, Paskin also said “we can’t tell if we’re overreacting in the moment because we have no idea what is going to happen.” You’re telling me! Paskin released that podcast on, ahem, March 2, nine days before March 11. Paskin could not imagine a world where COVID-19 had forced us all indoors and threatened every single brick and mortar small business on the block. An early sequence in “You’ve Got Mail” in which the main characters played by Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks walk through upper west side New York , carried along by the sweeping majesty of The Cranberries’ “Dreams”, supplies myriad images of security gates being raised on neighborhood mom-and-pop stores, rendering them as the fabric of the community. Meg Ryan was beaming, but I wanted to cry.

But enough about that! We’re here to discuss “You’ve Got Mail” not as an artifact but a rom com, and a damn good one too, not just relatively speaking, reuniting the “Sleepless in Seattle” power couple by updating 1940’s “The Shop Around the Corner” for an AOL world. Rather than exchanging letters, Kathleen Kelly (Ryan) and Joe Fox (Hanks) exchange emails, never betraying their identities or revealing specifics. She runs a children’s bookstore, respectfully named The Shop Around the Corner, while he helms a chain of Barnes & Noble-ish monoliths, Fox Books, along with his chauvinist father (Dabney Coleman) and grandfather (John Randolph). This puts Kathleen and Joe at odds, of course, in the real world, once they meet, though these spaces they inhabit in their Earthbound reality gradually proves apart from their authentic selves, or the selves for which they unwittingly hunger. If their online correspondence comes with a stigma, both of them sneaking around behind their respective significant others’ (Greg Kinnear, Parker Posey) backs to go online as the movie opens, director Nora Ephron – who co-wrote the script with sister Delia  – ultimately see email as okay, an avenue to, quoting the late Dolores O’Riordan of The Cranberries in “Dreams”, “a different way to be.”

Just as ably, “You’ve Got Mail” demonstrates a different way for rom coms to be, or maybe just how they used to be. In a late scene, after Kathleen has been forced to close her store (spoiler alert!), the one her beloved mother opened so long ago, Ephron indulges in a moving flight of fancy, a manifestation of a dream, as Kathleen watches a vision of her younger self dancing across the bookstore with her mother. I sometimes felt the same way watching the expert rom com construction, wishing, hoping we could have Nora Ephron, who died in 2012, back, for just one more crack at this foundering genre. It’s odd, I kept thinking, how in a modern world where the Movie Star has all but been eradicated by devotion to the Concept and IP, filmmakers still tend to sculpt romantic comedies around two leads. What they forget, however, is not just the twinkly presence of pros like Ryan and Hanks but the satellites orbiting them, which is “You’ve Got Mail’s” true profundity, how every supporting character exists on her/his own terms even as she/he illuminates some aspect of Kathleen or Joe.

Though Kathleen does not possess the narcissism of her newspaper columnist boyfriend, Frank (Kinnear), nor even his extreme Luddite tendencies, played to much comic effect, she is nevertheless nostalgic, yearning for the world her mother grew up in and that The Shop Around the Corner represents. Joe’s significant other, meanwhile, Patricia (Posey), has a contemptuousness baked into her smile that mirrors Joe’s. At the same time, he is both son of his smug, sexist father but also, in what he astutely deems “a modern American family”, nephew to an 11-year old aunt, Annabelle, and half-brother to 4-year old Matthew, suggesting the sweet kid that lurks inside, glimpsed in a joyful Saturday afternoon outing that ends at The Shop Around the Corner where Hanks where Hanks lets pockets of sincerity shine through his hardened businessman exterior. Both of these attitudes are wresting for control and Hanks dexterously lets us see them in equal measure, not exactly likable in his in-person scenes with Ryan even as, over email, not just in what’s written but in the inflections of his voiceover, he suggests a better man struggling to burst forth.

It’s what makes the master narrative stroke work so well, in which Joe realizes Kathleen is his pen pal before she does. In consulting with her about this mystery email writer, then, he is not really manipulating her but trying to will his better self into being, which is not so easy, while simultaneously Kathleen is struggling to leave her old self, represented by The Shop Around the Corner, behind. That last one, as Paskin noted on her podcast, is tough, a lot tougher than you typically find in a rom com. Indeed, Fox Books receives no comeuppance, Kathleen’s store is not saved and when she tells him at at movie’s end “I wanted it to be you”, it sounds less certain than hopeful.

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