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Posted on 6/27/12 08:29 AM
It's pretty frightening to think about it, but it's been almost a decade since You've Got Mail first hit the silver screen. It's possibly even more frightening when you hear - possibly for the first time in close to a decade! - the once-ubiquitous, shrill buzz of the modem dial-up as one-time rom-com golden couple Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan log onto the Internet to exchange missives and, well, fall in love. But, in a weird way, the movie's now anachronistic form of communication only adds to its quaint charm, and is actually quite fitting in a way, since the movie is so much about the nostalgia, pain and sheer inevitability that accompanies the replacing of the old (a charming kids' book store a.k.a., the 'Shop Around the Corner') with the new (a mega-book-chain a la Borders).
But I'm getting ahead of myself here. It's frequently the quirkiness and spark of the characters in a rom-com that sets it apart from the rest of its brethren. Fortunately, writer-director Nora Ephron gets the protagonists just right here: Kathleen Kelly (Ryan) is the adorable owner of a kids' bookstore she inherited from her mom. Smart and passionate about her life's work in children's literature, Kathleen seems to be with her self-absorbed journalist boyfriend Frank (Greg Kinnear) for no reason other than that she hasn't found that someone else who really gets her. Except perhaps for NY152, the mysterious guy she met through AOL in the guise of Shopgirl, and with whom she trades smart, chatty, sweet e-mails... even as her little shop fights for its life against the mega Fox bookstore opening up right across the road. Of course, it wouldn't be a deliciously complicated rom-com tangle unless her arch-enemy Joe Fox (Hanks) turned out to be NY152... but Kathleen doesn't know this. And when Joe, who is also already embroiled in a relationship with shrill publisher Patricia (Parker Posey), realises that the woman he's fallen in love with online is his nemesis in real life, can the two penpal sweethearts battle their lives and business rivalry to find happiness?
Ephron appears to have dutifully checked off every box on the rom-com to-do list, at least when it comes to mining the situation and her characters for comedy: quirky supporting characters (like Kathleen's aged and loopy accountant Birdie, played by Jean Stapleton); cute kids (namely little Matt, who, in being able to spell 'F-O-X' is actually giving Kathleen a big clue about Joe's association with a soul-eating conglomerate); angry sparks flying between the main couple (Kathleen, after discovering that Joe is the one set to put her out of business, lashes out at him: "What ARE you doing? You're taking all the caviar? That caviar is a garnish!"); and finally, comic misunderstandings galore (standout scene: Joe, upon realising that Kathleen is Shopgirl, meets her as himself, and goads her into a hilarious verbal fight that she wins but later apologises for... over e-mail!). YGM is also blessed with smart, delightfully quoteable banter, delivered by a couple of old hands who have more chemistry just sitting across a table from each other than do some far less inspiring rom-com couples in recent memory.
But, and I'm sure this is a debatable point, especially by those who didn't enjoy this movie half as much as I did, where Ephron really keeps the movie from being a simple cash-in on the then bankable Hanks/Ryan brand name (which hit its arguable zenith in Sleepless In Seattle) is in her careful development of a genuinely affecting little story in which their real lives get hopelessly entangled, even as they try to seek each other out to provide support over the Internet. It's a fitting metaphor still, for a generation increasingly wired and therefore increasingly inclined to find love and companionship in virtual ways utterly unthinkable just two decades earlier. It's a genuinely nice touch that the movie's central relationship is founded in the advent of new technology, even as it explores the sheer amount of lost history and heartache that goes into the demolition of something as small as a corner bookshop on a busy Manhattan street.
Perhaps more importantly, for all the schmaltz that she sneaks into the movie (it wouldn't be an Ephron movie if it didn't include at least one achingly sentimental scene - such as the one of Kathleen bidding her emptied little bookshop farewell as she watches her mother and her younger self twirl innocently in the shadowy darkness), Ephron is admirably tough-minded about the necessity and value of change in a world that's occasionally too romantic for its own good. Change may frequently be heartbreaking, but it's just as frequently necessary and even good: Ephron doesn't take the easy way out by completely demonising Joe and Fox Books, instead giving Joe some leeway to make valid points about how he's democratising the book-buying process and making more books available at a cheaper price to more people than Kathleen ever could.
Good story is ably abetted by genuinely great characters, brought to life by two actors who really seem to believe in the entire enterprise. (Sometimes, despite the $20 million paychecks, big stars in rom-coms can barely disguise the disdain in their eyes as they go through the motions to earn the cash - see, for example, John Cusack in America's Sweethearts.) Kathleen is cute and charming, especially as played by the unfailingly adorable Ryan. If I'd reviewed this movie when it was released in 1998, I'd probably have said that Ryan might well have delivered one of the best performances in her career, and hoped for better. Unfortunately, Kathleen appears to be Ryan's last really appealing role. Joe Fox, meanwhile, is certainly one of the best male leads ever created for a rom-com - he doesn't break moulds, per se, being similarly snarky and apparently offputting as Mr Darcy in that cornerstone of romantic comedy, Pride and Prejudice (which, cannily enough, Ephron cites throughout the movie, alongside The Godfather). But he is very recognisably real: neither a dashing pipe dream of a Prince Charming, nor one of those roguish jerks that film-makers occasionally try to pass off as appealing rom-com leading men. Add to this already promising-on-paper character the everyman charm of Hanks, whose comic skills are so frequently neglected in favour of heavy drama, and you've got a winner.
Filled with a sweet, easy charm, YGM is one of those movies where just about everything went right, when pretty much everything could have gone wrong. It's pretty close to a sequel, for one thing, and there are still people who can't forgive it for coming after Sleepless. Who's to say that Hanks and Ryan, for all their inimitable charm, could have saved a potentially cliche-ridden script by Ephron? Thank heavens that wasn't even an issue. Instead, you've got a clever, heartwarming little movie that's as romantic as it is funny - even ten years on.