On You’ve Got Mail

Like Sleepless in Seattle,  a sweet-intended love story which starts through a radio program, You’ve Got Mail features love being found through the internet. There are serious dangers to meeting someone through the internet, as opposed to knowing someone in person. According to Tech in our Everyday Life‘s article, “Dangers of Meeting People Online“:

“On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog,” quips one dog to another in the famous “New Yorker” cartoon by Peter Steiner. The pithy statement encapsulates the enjoyable side of Internet anonymity — but says nothing about its dangers. The very same anonymity that fosters free expression also creates an environment where scammers, sexual predators and other unsavory characters can thrive.

Scammers and Con Men

Meeting people on the Internet, especially through online dating, is touted as an antidote to loneliness. Something that isn’t often mentioned, however, is that scammers and con men also frequent community and dating websites specifically to take advantage of that loneliness. A scammer will choose one or more targets and slowly work to build his victims’ trust. He will seem like the perfect gentleman — keeping in touch, sending gifts, making the victim feel special — until one day he asks for money, promising to repay it as soon as possible. The reason varies, and often a heart-rending story is attached, such as a medical emergency he doesn’t have the funds to cover, a death in the family or a robbery. Although an unbiased, outside observer would see this as a reason to suspect something, by then the victim trusts the scammer and so the money is sent. Over time, there are more and more emergencies, more reasons for the scammer to ask for money, and soon enough the victim is broke, possibly even in debt. At that point, the scammer breaks off all contact and disappears. According to Nickolas Savage, assistant section chief of the FBI’s Cyber Division, the average loss for a victim of such a scheme is between $15,000 and $20,000, although there have been cases in which scammers extracted hundreds of thousands of dollars from their victims, with one con man managing to obtain a successful executive’s entire life savings — almost a million dollars — before being arrested in 2012.

Blackmailers and Extortionists

Keeping private information private seems like common sense, but when chatting online some people get caught up in the moment and forget that they are potentially becoming vulnerable to a vicious cycle of blackmail and extortion. After a victim shares personal information or, worse, compromising photos with a blackmailer, he will threaten her with sharing it publicly and demand money or more compromising material. Alternatively, he will post the information on a website and demand money to remove it. Savage calls this “sextortion,” as the extorted material often contains sexual content.

Thieves

Canny burglars have turned to the Internet to get information on potential marks. Experienced and casual Internet users alike should beware of sharing too much information with an online friend, as he may be nothing more than a thief wanting to find out his victim’s home address, day-to-day schedule and upcoming holiday plans. Once they know the house will be left empty for an extended period of time, the burglars strike; people who live in an isolated location may be especially at risk.

Liars

Some online liars are not interested in stealing money or possessions — they simply want their victim’s love, concern and support as they struggle with an illness they don’t actually have, a behavior termed “Munchausen by Internet.” Such people might join online support groups for the disease they are pretending to have or simply befriend you individually; when their lies are exposed, they may apologize, lash out, or simply disappear only to reappear elsewhere doing the same thing.

Sexual Predators

Although television programs such as Chris Hansen’s “To Catch a Predator” Dateline series have widely publicized the risks for children, adults are also vulnerable to online sexual predators. A predator who targets adults may sign up for dating websites, many of which don’t conduct background checks for prior criminal convictions, or simply lurk around large online communities; once he has found a suitable victim, he spends some time building up her trust, arranges a meeting and then strikes.

Films like You’ve Got Mail and Sleepless in Seattle are entirely fictitious, a fantasy-land portrayed where anything (in this case, love) can happen, but in the real world, there are serious dangers that are posed to a person who naively meets someone over the internet in a similar way. I err on the side of responsibility. According to the Mental Floss article, “15 Fun Facts About ‘You’ve Got Mail’“:

Five years after Sleepless in Seattle (1993), the unstoppable rom-com trio of Tom Hanks, Meg Ryan, and Nora Ephron joined forces again for You’ve Got Mail. In the triumvirate’s second project, Hanks played Joe Fox, founder of a mega-bookstore chain, who has an online romance (in the nascent days of the Internet) with Kathleen Kelly (Ryan), the owner of a small children’s bookshop. It doesn’t take long for the pair to learn that online romances can be much easier than real-life ones.

1. IT WAS BASED ON A 1936 HUNGARIAN PLAY.

Parfumerie was written by Miklós László. It’s about two bickering co-workers at a Budapest gift shop who don’t realize they’re pen pals. It was adapted for the screen twice before You’ve Got Mail: once as The Shop Around the Corner (1940) starring James Stewart, and again as the musical In the Good Old Summertime (1949) starring Judy Garland.

Producer Julie Durk got the idea to remake The Shop Around the Corner after watching the movie in 1992. Durk told producer Lauren Shuler Donner, who then optioned the rights. Years later, Donner came up with the idea to have the remake involve the Internet, and the wheels were set in motion.

2. MEG RYAN DIDN’T HAVE A COMPUTER BEFORE MAKING THE MOVIE.

“I got my first computer when I did that movie,” Ryan told Vanity Fair. “I think that the company gave us a computer.”

3. DABNEY COLEMAN HAD NO IDEA WHAT BEING “ONLINE” MEANT.

Dabney Coleman played Tom Hanks’ father, Nelson Fox. In 2010, Coleman recalled his experience auditioning for the film: “At the interview, I walked in and Nora Ephron, who wrote and directed that, said … Uh … I still can’t think of it now. What do you say … ? What is the expression? Is it, ‘Are you online?’ Meaning, ‘Do you use a computer?’ What do you call it? Does that make sense to you? Is there such an expression? Meaning, ‘Do you have a website, and do you use a computer?’ Anyway, whatever it was, I said, ‘I don’t even know what that means.’ And they all laughed. And that was well into the computer age. I still only use the computer for e-mail—and to bet on sports. That’s it.”

4. NORA EPHRON WANTED TO SET THE FILM ON NEW YORK CITY’S UPPER WEST SIDE BECAUSE IT FEELS LIKE A SMALL VILLAGE.

According to Shuler Donner, Ephron—who directed, co-wrote, and produced the film—saw the Upper West Side as a small community in the same way that the village in The Shop Around the Corner was a small community. “To establish this, Nora showed scenes at the beginning of the film of bread being dropped off outside these closed little stores to make the audience feel like they were in a village even though they were in a metropolis like New York.”

5. BARNES & NOBLE DECLINED INVOLVEMENT.

Producers originally asked Barnes & Noble if they could make one of their stores into a Fox Books location. When they said no, they used the Barneys that had just closed on Seventh Avenue and West 17th Street in Chelsea. (Earlier this year, Barneys made a triumphant returnto the location.)

6. FOX BOOKS WAS TOO REALISTIC.

Production designer Dan Davis and his crew did such a good job making the fake bookstorethat passersby asked them when it was going to open.

7. KATHLEEN’S SHOP AROUND THE CORNER WAS A CHEESE AND ANTIQUE SHOP.

The owner was sent on vacation while her store was transformed into a doomed business. Years later, the real shop—at West 69th and Columbus Avenue—closed down, too. It becamean organic dry cleaner.

8. RYAN WORKED AT A REAL BOOKSTORE TO PREP FOR THE ROLE.

Ryan and Heather Burns, who played Ryan’s employee Christina, spent one week working at Books of Wonder, a children’s bookstore in Manhattan, to get into their characters for the movie. (Books of Wonder is still around by the way.)

9. THE OPENING CREDITS WERE SUPPOSED TO FEATURE AN ANIMATED VERSION OF PIET MONDRIAN’S BROADWAY BOOGIE-WOOGIE.

Piet Mondrian’s 1943 painting, Broadway Boogie-Woogie—a representation of New York City—was a huge inspiration to Ephron. But when animator Mirko Ilić and his staff animated Mondrian’s painting, Ephron wanted something more “realistic or romantic.” So they photographed all of the buildings along Broadway on the Upper West Side, from 72nd Street to the brownstone where the film begins, as a guide for the computer graphic animation. At one point there was a fear that the audience would get motion sickness, because there was a lot of ground to cover.

10. IT’S THE FIRST FILM ALLOWED TO SHOOT IN ZABAR’S.

You’ve Got Mail has the distinction of being the first film to be allowed to film inside the classic grocery store on Broadway and West 80th Street.

11. THE PASSAGE OF TIME WAS MADE CLEAR IN THE BACKGROUND OF THE MOVIE.

“The extra who is playing the florist [in the beginning of the film] is pregnant,” Ephron pointed out on the DVD commentary. “We put a little pad in her tummy. And one of the things you will see later in the movie is when Meg is buying flowers at that florist, there’s a little sign in the window that says, ‘It’s a girl.'”

12. TOM HANKS WAS ALLOWED TO AD LIB.

When Joe carried balloons and a goldfish and accidentally slammed the balloons into the door, Hanks came up with the line, “good thing it wasn’t the fish.” Improvisation was also welcomed in the scene when the bookstore employees talked about the positives of online dating and cybersex.

13. MICHAEL PALIN WAS CUT FROM THE MOVIE.

Michael Palin spent a week portraying William Spungen, an author friend of Kathleen’s, who was based on Thomas Pynchon. But the scenes didn’t really fit in with the rest of the movie. According to Palin, the character was a villain with “no redeeming moral virtues.”

14. HEATHER BURNS WAS AGAINST HANKS AND RYAN GETTING TOGETHER IN THE END.

“I was young and really idealistic, and I got a little mad that she ends up with the guy who’s putting her out of business,” Burns recalled about where her thinking was while shooting her first feature movie. “And Nora said to me, ‘Heather, the older you get, you’re gonna realize that things change and there’s not very much that you can do about it. And the city changes, and that’s just the way it is.’ And as I have gotten older, I realized she was right.”

15. ALL OF JOE AND KATHLEEN’S EMAILS WERE PUT ON THE MOVIE’S OFFICIAL WEBSITE, WHICH WARNER BROS. HAS KEPT ACTIVE.

In other words, you can still read the emails today, without having to use any of your hacking skills.

Addtionally, according to the Huffington Post article, “5 Things You Didn’t Know About ‘You’ve Got Mail’“:

Tuesday, May 19, would have been the late Nora Ephron’s birthday. Although she scribed and directed many romantic classics, “You’ve Got Mail” has remained particularly relevant thanks in part to the boom in Internet dating and the modern state of book stores.

To get a better sense of how the movie came together, The Huffington Post spoke with actress Heather Burns, who played the young Shop Around The Corner employee who was also Kathleen Kelly’s (Meg Ryan) BFF, Christina.

At the time, Burns said she had an “Ah, man” feeling about the movie’s messages of eternal change and the values of learning to adapt. But, she adds, the movie has meant more and more to her over the years.

On that note, here are five things you may not have known about “You’ve Got Mail,” according to Burns:

1. Meg Ryan and Heather Burns worked at a real New York bookstore as cashiers to get into their roles.

Ephron set up a long rehearsal process for the actors, which was particularly appreciated by Burns, who was making her movie debut. As Burns explained, part of this introductory work for getting into character involved Ephron setting Ryan and Burns up with jobs at Books of Wonder in Manhattan.

The jobs lasted about a week and took place before work began on the movie.

“We’d go and just kind of hang out with the staff and learn what we would be doing from moment to moment,” said Burns. “How to work the cash register and things like that.”

Burns lived in New York at the time, making it a pretty easy commute and enjoyable experience overall. “It was really fun, I mean it was great to be around all those children’s books and be around kids.”

2. The cast members actually emailed each other during filming. They did not, sorry to disappoint, use AOL Instant Messenger.

“At that time, we would have had to come home and done it from our landline … the ‘blee ooh ehh,’” joked Burns, emphasizing the cast’s lack of Internet on set despite the movie’s theme. In what would perhaps crush all fanfic dreams, the cast wouldn’t AOL instant message each other like NY152 and Shopgirl. They would occasionally email.

3. Nora Ephron provided the cast with memorable meals that were borderline lavish, on a regular basis.

Burns fondly remembers the crab cakes Ephron would provide, saying, “She’d often take us to nice lunches during the rehearsal.” Speaking further about Ephron, Burns added, “She just loved food. She loved talking about food. She loved feeding people.”

As this was Burns’ first big movie, she really appreciated Ephron plucking her “out of nowhere” and helping her through the entire opportunity. Food, along with Ephron’s constant humor, had an effect of “making everyone else feel so important.”

“Food was always the main thing,” said Burns.

 

4. Improvising was encouraged on the set, including in the iconic cybersex scene.

Nora and her sister, Delia, co-wrote “You’ve Got Mail,” but gave their actors the opportunity to improvise dialogue into the movie. Burns felt as if the “the whole script was so funny and so well written,” but certainly appreciated the opportunity to try different things.

One of the moments where the actors were given the opportunity to improvise was the cybersex scene, where the bookstore employees talk about the merits of online dating.

Burns didn’t have too much personal experience to add in this particular improvisation, however. “I wasn’t dating at the time, I was in a relationship, so I wasn’t going online, in chat rooms and things like that,” said Burns. “But, we were all just aware of that. And you knew about it and had friends, at least in my experience I had a lot of friends who would date online at that point in time. It was getting the point then even when I don’t think there was a taboo about it. It was starting to be normalized.”

5. Ephron encouraged The Shop Around The Corner employees to hang out extensively to build their onscreen chemistry.

Ephron knew that The Shop Around The Corner employees would be shooting in that bookstore for entire days at a time and tried to make sure they had the chemistry to pull that off. Ephron would take them on “wonderful lunches,” as mentioned, and ask that “the bookstore employees hang out together when [they] weren’t filming.”

Keeping it true to form, the bookstore employees didn’t mingle with the Fox Books employees as Ephron just focused on the groups seen in the movie. “That’s mostly what she concentrated on,” said Burns. “Which was great, because it was great to start the first day and kind of have a bit of history with everyone.”

BONUS: Since the movie, Burns has actually petitioned for local NYC bookstores. The death of “Fox Books” has her conflicted, though.

“I don’t know about everyone else, I wasn’t the biggest fan of Barnes & Noble at the time,” admitted Burns, who has always had a special love for “smaller bookstores.” Recently, the rent was raised on the classic St. Mark’s Bookshop in Manhattan, which Burns tried to prevent by being “pretty active in sending out petitions to keep it alive.” The store thankfully found a new location.

But the rise of online retailers has complicated Burns’ aversion to the “Fox Books” stores of the city. “So now that Barnes & Noble is getting put out of business by Amazon, I don’t know,” said Burns, who wished there could be any bookstore vs. the person-less and algorithm-optimized Amazon. “Maybe I should have been more supportive of Barnes & Noble.”

Finally, according to The Rumpus article, “You’ve Got Mail And The Internet Of Ordinary People“:

The Internet taught me how to type, and FOMO—fear of missing out—remained my biggest motivator. I was in middle school and I wanted to keep up with the conversational flow in eighteen-and-under, kids-only chat rooms, which flooded with words faster than I could answer. By the time I would reply, everyone else was on to something else and my one line hung there, unacknowledged, sandwiched between other people’s conversations. Lagging behind socially in real life was one thing. I wasn’t about to let it happen to me on the World Wide Web as well.

Technically, Mavis Beacon should get partial credit as my first teacher. I started on the Mavis software in my grade school computer class a year or so before my parents set up a dial-up-connected computer in our dining room. But Miss Beacon was a stressful teacher. I concentrated too hard on my fingers, looking at my hands as I typed, causing typos as I hit the wrong keys.

“Eventually, you should be able to read off a piece of paper and type at the same time,” our instructor said. I didn’t think I’d ever get to that level, but then the Internet happened and I never stopped typing.

I was still getting my finger placement down when I saw You’ve Got Mail in 1998 with my childhood best friend. It was holiday break, free days of indulgence and laziness filled with hot chocolate, new books, and feel-good movies. In a week, we’d be back to life, back to reality, back to eighth grade. Obnoxious classmates, unrequited crushes, and pre-algebra homework—the memories alone are gross. But for that day, we were in our local Carmike Cinemas in the big back theater, the one with two aisles and doors on either side.

When it was over, we confirmed our enjoyment the way we did all movies back then.

“I liked it!” one of us exclaimed as we walked across the lobby.

“Yeah!” the other said with mutual enthusiasm. “It was cute.”

That was the extent of our movie analysis.

You’ve Got Mail is Nora Ephron’s remake of the 1940’s The Shop Around the Corner starring Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan, a film based on the 1937 Miklós László playParfumerie, which in turn inspired the 1963 musical She Loves Me, a recent revival and the first livestreamed Broadway musical. The tale of two lonelyhearts who bicker when face to face yet connect through anonymous correspondence and eventually fall in love is a timeless story that endures through numerous technological translations. In the 1990s chat-room world of identity-concealing screen names, the narrative was practically begging to be updated for a newly online audience.

Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks are at their late ’90s best. They will always be Kathleen Kelly and Joe Fox to me—Meg in her adorable blonde pixie and Tom with his goofy curly hair. Kathleen is the proprietor of a children’s bookstore, The Shop Around the Corner (a wink to the film’s predecessor), a humble place that soon sits in the shadow of the newest link in Joe’s family chain, Fox Books, a fictional take on Barnes & Noble. Kathleen and Joe show a glimpse of their possible chemistry at their first-name-only meet-cute, until they later learn each other’s last name and they realize the significance. They spar in their own ways—Joe, through insults, and Kathleen, by getting tongue-tied and wishing she was able to say what she wants to say in the moment. Unbeknownst to either of them, Kathleen and Joe are writing emails about their lives to ShopGirl (Kathleen) and NY152 (Joe) and, of course, slowly falling in love. Through the power of the Internet, Joe teaches Kathleen to stand up for herself and she opens him up to his sensitive side. There are silly and sad moments, but happy endings for all.

You’ve Got Mail was one of the first movies to depict the Internet as it affects the lives of ordinary users. Not computer geniuses or hackers or stereotypical nerds hiding in a basement, but interesting, flawed people—people we know in our everyday life. People like us. The revelatory statement this movie makes is that enjoying the connection the Internet brings us doesn’t make us pathetic or weird. It can be a way to make friends, find love, and create lasting relationships. There was shame in admitting this twenty years ago, but now, it’s common knowledge.

I wanted to be Kathleen Kelly, her name crisp with that double-kay sound. She was a cool adult, one of the first fictional characters to give me an idea of the kind of life I’d like to lead. Asking a child what she wants to be when she grows up is a question that always pertains to occupation. Though being a bookstore owner was extremely appealing, it was more than the job. With Kathleen, it was about how she lived her life, how she looked at the world around her. Kathleen bought flowers just because. She wore black in the fall and pastels in the spring. Better yet, she was human, not an impossibly perfect idealized person. She said the wrong things and agonized over it for hours, just like I did. We both loved books and the Internet, a contradiction of analog and technology. And like Kathleen Kelly, I tried to hide my online obsession. It felt embarrassing, as if it was a sign that I didn’t know how to act like a human, which, considering I was an awkward preteen, I kind of didn’t.

At the beginning of the film, both Kathleen and Joe double check that their then-significant others are out of their apartments before signing online; the loud dial-up screech would have given them away. This isn’t because of the fear of their SOs finding out they were chatting with a stranger—that is never brought up—but because sheer pleasure in the Internet felt like something they needed to hide. This technological incompatibility extended into other areas of their lives and ultimately causes both Joe and Kathleen to leave their former flames.

“You think that thing is your friend, but it’s not!” calls out Kathleen’s boyfriend, played by Greg Kinnear, as he runs out the door. He’s a self-proclaimed Luddite, the dissenting opinion, the one person still using a typewriter in 1998 (a modern one at that, not even a vintage model as is trendy with hipsters today). There always has to be one. Today’s equivalent are people who take themselves too seriously to snap a selfie and refuse to join Facebook, requiring a personal invitation for parties. On the other side is Joe’s fast-talking, espresso-downing girlfriend, the fantastic Parker Posey, who would be all over Twitter if it existed at the time. She is more of a caricature and less developed than Kinnear’s character, but there’s no doubt her brass one-liners (“Murray Chilton died, which makes one less person I’m not speaking to.”) would be retweeted for days.

The scene midway through the movie of Joe and Kathleen meeting in a coffee shop, which tips the scale of power in his favor, as he learns her identity first, is possibly the first depiction of online strangers meeting each other in person. To do so was not commonplace at the time, and Kathleen hesitates before accepting his offer. “Meet?” she says out loud to herself after reading his email, a look of bewilderment in her eyes before shutting her laptop lid. There are two words that sum up what everyone thought of meeting someone online at the time: serial killer. Joe fails to reveal himself to her, and instead sits at her table and, to her exasperation, continues to chat. When NY152 apparently stands her up, Kathleen’s friends even consider the possibility that he didn’t show because he was the rooftop killer splashed on the front page of that morning’s paper. Which wouldn’t be an unheard-of thought back then. The idea of Tinder— now that would have been unbelievable.

In fact, at the time that the film was released, I was being taught at school and at home to never, ever, ever give out identifying information online, no exceptions. There was this distinction between your online life and your “real” one. I still think this is good advice for minors, so it’s strange for me to see teens using their real names and photos on Twitter or Instagram, but I suppose that’s the difference between my generation and the next. Today’s teens have grown up with the Internet so deeply ingrained in their lives that many of them know how to cultivate their online image from a young age. As a teenager myself, I used movie character avatars on LiveJournal, yet many of today’s teens claim their own name’s dot-com before they’re out of high school. It’s not unusual for them to have friends across the country that they’ve met over Tumblr, just as I kept my LiveJournal pals to myself. And the identity fear-mongering worked on me, at least for a while. It took until my late twenties until I finally changed my Twitter handle into my full name.

After selling her store and collecting her bearings, Kathleen eventually allows Joe into her life and they become friends. She learns to trust him the same way any woman does with a guy she meets through online dating—slowly and with an open heart. When she first talks to Joe about the guy she was supposed to meet in the coffee shop, she’s embarrassed. “I don’t actually know him,” she admits before falling back into a pile of pillows, burying her face in shame. “I only know him through the, uh… you’re never going to believe this….” “Oh, let me guess,” Joe says. “Through the Internet?” Her eyes widen as she lets out, “Yes!” with relief. They bond over their love of AOL’s email notification system. “You’ve got mail,” Joe says. “Those are powerful words.” From hiding our true identities to claiming websites with our full names on display, we still crave true human connection; technology hasn’t changed so much as evolved. As Kathleen writes in an email to Joe, “The odd thing about this form of communication is that you’re more likely to talk about nothing than something. But I just want to say that all this nothing has meant more to me than so many somethings.”

It’s a little funny that it was the Internet-induced FOMO that got me typing back in the late ’90s when back then there were no words to describe the sensation of feeling technologically left out. Honestly, it doesn’t take the Internet for a teenager to feel out of place. Even without the latest apps and social media obsessions, adolescence is all about playing catch-up, doing the best to seem with it, feeling like everyone else is hanging out without you—or at least it was like that for me.

Today, we are all Joes and Kathleens, meeting with strangers for coffee and drinks in cities across the country and taking chances on someone we’ve never seen in the flesh. The stigma towards online dating has changed dramatically compared to even just eleven years ago when the Pew Research Center first polled Americans about online dating in 2005. Use of dating apps has nearly tripled from 2013 to 2015, jumping from a lowly ten percent of 18-24 year olds to twenty-seven percent. My age bracket, 25-34, holds steady at twenty-two percent, and I’m part of that demographic. Every time I meet a guy off OKCupid, I echo the same words that Joe said: “Why am I even doing this? Why am I compelled to even meet him??” It’s nerve-racking, to put yourself in such a vulnerable position, but it’s the only way forward. Ultimately, no matter how comfortable we may feel behind a computer screen, the only certainty can be found in the real, face-to-face moments, even if, like Kathleen Kelly trying to find the exact words, we end up tongue-tied.

According to Roger Ebert:

The appeal of “You’ve Got Mail” is as old as love and as new as the Web. It stars Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan as immensely lovable people whose purpose it is to display their lovability for two hours, while we desperately yearn for them to solve their problems, fall into each other’s arms and get down to the old rumpy-pumpy.

They meet in a chat room on AOL, and soon they’re revealing deep secrets (but no personal facts) in daily and even hourly e-mail sessions. The movie’s call to arms is the inane chirp of the maddening “You’ve Got Mail!” Voice (which prompts me to growl, “Yes, and I’m gonna stick it up your modem!”). But the e-mail is really just the MacGuffin–the device necessary to keep two people who fall in love online from finding out that they already know and hate each other in real life.

The plot surrounds Hanks and Ryan not only with e-mail lore, but with the Yuppie Urban Lifestyle. It’s the kind of movie where the characters walk into Starbucks and we never for a moment think “product placement!” because, frankly, we can’t imagine them anywhere else. Where the generations are so confused by modern mating appetites that Joe Fox (the Hanks character) can walk into a bookstore with two young children and introduce them as his brother and his aunt (“Matt is my father’s son, and Annabel is my grandfather’s daughter”).

Kathleen, the Meg Ryan character, runs the children’s book shop she inherited from her mother. She and her loyal staff read all the books, know all the customers, and provide full service and love. Joe Fox is the third generation to run a chain of gigantic book megastores. When the new Fox Books opens around the corner from Kathleen’s shop, it’s only a matter of time until the little store is forced out of business. Kathleen turns for advice and solace to her anonymous online friend–who is, of course, Joe.

And yet this is not quite an Idiot Plot, so called because a word from either party would instantly end the confusion. It maintains the confusion only up to a point, and then does an interesting thing: allows Joe to find out Kathleen’s real identity while still keeping her quite reasonably in the dark. And, oh, the poignant irony, as Joe has to stand there and be insulted by the woman he loves. “You’re nothing but a suit!” she says. “That’s my cue,” he says. “Goodnight.” And as he nobly conceals his pain, we are solaced only by the knowledge that sooner or later the scales will fall from her eyes.

The movie was directed by Nora Ephron, who also paired Hanks and Ryan in “Sleepless in Seattle” (1993), and has made an emotional, if not a literal, sequel. That earlier film was partly inspired by “An Affair to Remember,” and this one is inspired by “The Shop Around the Corner,” but both are really inspired by the appeal of Ryan and Hanks, who have more winning smiles than most people have expressions.

Ephron and her co-writer, her sister Delia, have surrounded the characters with cultural references that we can congratulate ourselves on recognizing: not only Jane Austen, but also the love affair carried on by correspondence between George Bernard Shaw and Mrs. Patrick Campbell. Not only “The Godfather” (which “contains the answers to all of life’s questions”), but also Anthony Powell and Generalissimo Franco. (It is one of the movie’s quietly hilarious conceits that the little store’s elderly bookkeeper, played by Jean Stapleton, was in love years ago with a man who couldn’t marry her “because he had to run Spain.”) The plot I shall not describe, because it consists of nothing but itself, so any description would make it redundant. What you have are two people the audience desires to see together, and a lot of devices to keep them apart. There is the added complication that both Hanks and Ryan begin the movie with other partners (Parker Posey and Greg Kinnear–respectively, of course). The partners get dumped without much fuss, and then we’re left with these two lonely single people, who have neat jobs but no one to rub toes with, and who are trapped by fate in a situation where he is destroying her dream, and she is turning to him (without knowing it is him) for consolation. Perfect.

The movie is sophisticated enough not to make the megastore into the villain. Say what you will, those giant stores are fun to spend time in, and there is a scene where Kathleen ventures anonymously into Joe’s big store for the first time and looks around, at the magazine racks and the cafe and all the books–and then there’s the heartbreaking moment when she overhears a question in the children’s section, and she knows the answer but of course the clerk doesn’t, and so she supplies the answer but it makes her cry, and Joe overhears everything. Whoa.

 

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2 thoughts on “On You’ve Got Mail

  1. Pingback: On A League of Their Own | The Progressive Democrat

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