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You've Got Mail

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: You've Got Mail

Starring: Tom Hanks, Meg Ryan
Director: Nora Ephron
Rated: PG
RunTime: 110 Minutes
Release Date: December 1998
Genres: Comedy, Romance

*Also starring: Parker Posey, Jean Stapleton, Dave Chappelle, Steve Zahn, Greg Kinnear, Dabney Coleman, John Randolph

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

"You've Got Mail" comes across as a feathery romantic comedy centering on two people who have each broken up with their live-in friends and who have replaced them with people they truly love. This is the sort of movie that you'd expect form Nora Ephron, who put the same actors together five years ago in her "Sleepless in Seattle." As sweet as "Seattle" was, some of us wondered whether the only way to generate old-fashioned romance in a '90s movie is to conjure a turnout of Hollywood's Golden Age--in that case "An Affair to Remember." Once again, Ephron has copied the harvest of earlier comedies: the 1940 Ernst Lubitsch film "Shop Around the Corner," about coworkers in a Budapest notions shop who do not realize the are lonelyhearts penpals, in turn scripted from Nikolaus Laszlo's play "Parfumerie" which was later musicalized as "In the Good Old Summertime," then brought to Broadway as "She Loves Me." Apparently fearing that not enough potential fans in the U.S. would relate to a setup in a charming European city or that they may consider a perfumery too wan to situate their characters, Ms. Ephron updated and Americanized the old warhorse, setting the action in her own neighborhood, New York's Upper West Side, using internet mail as the MacGuffin to propel the action.

Though polls taken after the early screenings of the movie show that young New York women, the targeted core audience, are all weepy and smiles about the whimsical adventures of Joe Fox (Tom Hanks) and Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan), perhaps they have no right to be--given the uneven power relationships of the two principals. It's not so much that Joe is the scion of a major book baron who owns a chain of megastores selling at deep discounts and who is consciously driving independent shops out of business. That's the nature of the game. It's more that Joe knows something that Kathleen does not, conceals that intelligence from her, and manipulates her into humiliating situations. These circumstances include one in which he stands her up and another that sees him toying with a lovely person who should have been given full disclosure at the first opportunity. Even worse, Kathleen responds to Joe's competitive drive with a dislike that is not at all convincing. She's just too amiable to detest anybody and Joe is even more the cad for suppressing what he knows. In a romantic comedy we want the two principals to get together after what is seemingly half a lifetime of obstacles. In this case we should want Nora Ephron to make an exception. We want her to frustrate Joe in the final scene to punish him for making Kathleen's life hell.

As the story opens we observe that Kathleen runs a bookstore that has been in her family for decades, one which specializes in the sale of children's books about which the owner knows absolutely everything. One of her employees, Birdie (Jean Stapleton) has been associated with her for about as long and acts as the store's bookkeeper. Just a block away, Joe Fox is busy following his dad's plan to build a megastore, one which will sell all sorts of books and distribute them at deep discounts--which he can do because of the economics of massive purchases. Communicating via AOL with a cyber partner whose identity he does not know-- and who does not realize who he is as well--he discovers that he is reaching the very woman whose business he is threatening. Each time he runs into her, he chats in a friendly manner as you'd expect from a guy who has the superior edge. When she learns that he is the man who will put her shop into bankruptcy, she rebuffs him, but even then her responses are so saccharin that you'd scarcely guess the depth of her resentment.

Despite the mean-spiritedness that underlies this only seemingly dulcet story, "You've Got Mail" is a valentine to New York's Upper West Side neighborhood, a center of liberal, well-educated individuals who patronize a plethora of megastores and independents as well. The surroundings are a perfect urban answer to the malling of America with its variety of specialty shops, some of which are lovingly portrayed--particularly the great Zabar's appetizer emporium and the fairly new presence of Starbuck's. The streets are spotless, the residents are friendly, and those friendly denizens include eccentrics of every variety. They embracee Kathleen's live-in friend Frank Navasky (Greg Kinnear) who opposes all industrialization beyond the typewriter, and Patricia Eden (Parker Posey), who in the words of her boyfriend Joe would "make coffee nervous." Ephron piles on the oddities by introducing two youngsters of grade-school age, Matt ("My father's son," says Joe) and Annabel ("My grandfather's daughter," he adds).

Tom Hanks no longer has the agreeable appearance he exuded in "Sleepless in Seattle." He is developing a double- chin, his face rounding out unpleasantly giving him a look that is without his signature character lines. Meg Ryan hasn't changed a bit, however, so that it's not surprising that in the week of the movie's opening she is on the cover of both People magazine and TimeOutNY. Of the movies that have cast her this year, "You've Got Mail," rather than "HurlyBurly," is perfect for her personality. It's just unfortunate that the script designed by Ms. Ephron and her co-writing sister Delia Ephron allows Joe to take advantage of Kathleen's sweetness. This only reinforces the idea that nice girls don't really win. As critic Matt Zoller Seitz concludes in his New York Press review, "It reminded me of one of those soap opera plotlines where a woman falls in love with her rapist."

Copyright 1998 Harvey Karten

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