Happy 20th anniversary to ‘You’ve Got Mail,’ the best Tom Hanks-Meg Ryan rom-com
In 1940 Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullivan starred in The Shop Around the Corner, a romantic comedy about two employees at the same gift shop who despise each other in person while unwittingly falling in love as each other’s anonymous pen pal. It’s a delightful movie with lively performances, and serves as the basis for Nora Ephron’s 1998 film You’ve Got Mail.
You’ve Got Mail was intended as a modernized update to The Shop Around the Corner. No one was writing letters to anonymous pen pals in the late 90s, but they were starting to use instant messaging services to talk to strangers on the internet. Ephron’s version finds its antagonistic couple Joe (Tom Hanks) and Kathleen (Meg Ryan) chatting online, with an added real-life wrinkle: they are not bickering frenemies, but business competitors. Joe’s family runs Fox Books Superstore, and is poised to run Kathleen’s allusory store The Shop Around the Corner out of business. It’s a compelling twist, albeit one that has been very nearly ruined for me ever since They Came Together completely nailed this movie.
The film does not merely substitute the technology at the heart of The Shop Around the Corner - it actively makes a point of calling out the newness of the internet and explores whether it is good or bad for us. The public consensus, it seems, is anti-internet. In the opening moments of the movie, Kathleen’s boyfriend Frank (Greg Kinnear) rants about the perils of computers in grave terms. “You know what this is? What we’re seeing here?” he asks Kathleen rhetorically. “It’s the end of western civilization. You think this machine is your friend, but it’s not.” Later, when Kathleen tells her coworker Christina that she has been been talking to someone online, she is deeply embarrassed.
In their private moments, though, Joe and Kathleen find a safe haven on the web. The bulky computers they use to talk to each other about New York in the springtime or The Godfather are brought out in moments of seclusion, early in the morning or late at night with significant others away. Both Frank and Joe’s girlfriend Patricia (Parker Posey) are too self-concerned and cynical for Joe and Kathleen to share the full sentimentality of their thoughts. Their anonymous chats are not just romantic, but therapeutic. Their lives are defined by the expectations of others, and to have someone completely anonymous to confide in is freeing.
Their dynamic in person, meanwhile, is downright combative. Kathleen despises the corporate impersonality of Fox Books Superstore, and the callousness with which Joe views running her store into financial ruin. Joe is kind, but separates his personal capacity for empathy from his work. They trade barbs whenever they run into each other. Joe has the upper-hand, and his slights are laced with indifference; Kathleen’s are more impassioned, though she doesn’t always know what to say on the spot. The exchanges strike the necessary rom-com balance of animosity and infatuation; you get the sense if things boiled over Joe and Kathleen could be a moment away from embracing or spitting in each other’s faces.
You’ve Got Mail makes a point to call out the gap between Joe and Kathleen’s online and in-person relationships. On the internet, it seems, they are their better selves, their truer selves. It’s a conception of the internet that already seems depressingly quaint. Few would venture to say that we display the better angels of our nature online in 2018. The internet is a place for self-confirmation and clapbacks, not genuine connection. It is also not the private hideaway it is envisioned as in You’ve Got Mail. For Joe and Kathleen, their cyber chat rooms operate like a secret meeting place. It’s a space where they can share their feelings, but more strikingly, it’s also imagined as something that can be a distinct location: their online personas are fully separate from their real-life selves. The internet of You’ve Got Mail is an escape; the internet of 2018 is an extension. Frank is a pretentious dope, but were his warnings were more on the right path?
I actually think the opposite may be true: Ephron nails the possibility of what online communication could have been. In their isolated, anonymous conversations, Joe and Kathleen are able to share their most intimate feelings.
“The odd thing about this form of communication is that you’re more likely to talk about nothing than something,” she types to him. “But I just want to say that all this nothing has meant more to me than so many somethings.”
Perhaps the problem is the monstrous part of the internet not shown in You’ve Got Mail: the social network of it all. Joe and Kathleen are not on a quest for likes, or retweets, or comments. They can’t scroll through anything, let alone see pictures of one another. The film makes a convincing case that online connection, like any form of interaction, has the power to bring out the best in us. It seems that we’ve just gone and mucked up this potential since Joe and Kathleen were typing away twenty years ago.
No matter what we’ve done to the internet in the past couple of decades, though, it would be hard to reach the level of charisma and charm that Hanks and Ryan generate in cyberspace. Watching it this time around, I found myself thinking that this might be the rare occasion that Hanks is outmatched on screen. He is, of course, very good, but also very broad. Meg Ryan can flip from warmth to indignation to introspection in an instant with a facial expressiveness matched by few actresses (it’s reminiscent of Emma Stone in La La Land). Nevertheless, their banter is timeless, and buoyed by an excellent Ephron script. Their shared moments in the film are the main reason I prefer You’ve Got Mail to Sleepless in Seattle: Hanks and Ryan are at their best when they’re together.
In the film’s final scene, Joe and Kathleen’s online and real-life relationships finally converge: Kathleen discovers that she has been messaging Joe the whole time. “I wanted it to be you,” she tells him. It’s a beautiful line, and gets at the heart of what makes You’ve Got Mail great: online or not, it’s worth it to embrace the kinder, more open versions of ourselves. We may have lost that capacity in 2018; You’ve Got a Match doesn’t quite have the same ring to it. But Nora Ephron’s delightful rom-com classic suggests that whether it’s on the internet or in our everyday lives, it’s a worthy ideal to strive for.
You’ve Got Mail is currently streaming on HBO.