Whenever choosing an article, I like to choose films and subjects that are in a gray area of sorts. What I often find interesting are movies that do not quite fit the model we have come to expect. Case in point: Nora Ephron’s You’ve Got Mail (1998).
Due to the changes in entertainment, the film is a little more unclassifiable than it used to be. It represents the personal vision of somebody, but it also exists as a remake whose title is a piece of product placement. The film focuses on literate adults dealing with real world issues, yet it is also a PG rated movie centering around children’s books. These contradictions make it a different type of entertainment that the audience does not see as much today.
This article will focus on how the film does not follow many of the standard aesthetics and conventions of the Romantic Comedy genre. While these genre conventions often work, You’ve Got Mail tends to subvert them in interesting ways. This movie does not serve as the pinnacle of romantic comedy filmmaking by any means, but it makes some distinct choices. This article will primarily focus on those choices.
Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan) and Joe Fox (Tom Hanks) find romance with each other in an online chat room. Unfortunately, the existence of Joe’s large bookstore threatens to shut down Kathleen’s much smaller bookstore.
The daughter of comedy screenwriters, Nora Ephron began her career as a journalist before co-writing the film Silkwood (1983). After directing her first movie This Is My Life (1992), Ephron got nominated for the best original Screenplay Oscar for her work on Sleepless in Seattle (1993) with co-writers Jeff Arch and David S. Ward.
In many ways, this movie is very similar to Sleepless in Seattle. In a featurette, Ephron describes them as first cousins. That film also starred Hanks and Ryan. In the commentary for Mail, Ephron describes how the film is different from Sleepless in Seattle. In that movie, the story focused on if somebody could meet the right person. This story focuses on the possibility of falling in love with the wrong person (in this case, can a liberal fall for a business conservative?). Unlike Sleepless, the story focuses more on how people’s social and political differences separate them, rather than distance.
As a writer-director, Ephron would often collaborate with her younger sister Delia Ephron as a co-writer. Delia Ephron became an uncredited co-writer on the film and credited associate producer on Sleepless in Seattle and appeared as a credited writer on all of Ephron’s other films from this period.
Producer Lauren Schueler Donner had the idea of updating The Warner Brothers film The Shop Around The Corner (1940) brought to her around 1994. By that time, e-mail and the internet had become a new communication tool, opening up a new way to update the original story.
Original Source Material
You’ve Got Mail comes from Parfumerie, a 1937 play by Hungarian playwright Miklós László.
The play centered on a letter writing romance between two employees that hate each other in real life. In each version of the story, the pen pals eventually agree to meet. Before the meeting, the male lead discovers that the female lead is the one he has been writing to. After a tense encounter leads to them despising eachother even more, the male lead decides to reconsider his feelings towards her. Hearing that she is sick, the male lead goes to visit her with a gift. In this scene, she tells him about her pen pal. Over the next part of the story, he becomes her friend without her knowing who he really is. In the final scene, the male lead describes meeting her suitor (whom he describes in the most unappealing way) before revealing himself as her pen pal.
This is the basic gist of the story. The supporting characters and setting tend to change radically from version to version to meet different story requirements. You’ve Got Mail actually makes the female lead the protagonist of the story, rather than the male.
The story had previously been adapted as The Shop Around The Corner (1940), the film musical In The Good Old Summertime (1949), and the stage musical She Loves Me (1963). In the film adaptations of the story, the shop changes from a Parfumerie. The Shop Around The Corner focuses on a leather goods store, while In the Good Old Summertime focuses on a music shop. Ephron had no interest in writing about these products. This led to many changes in the source material.
In every other version of the story, the characters are co-workers rather than competitors. Many of the plot beats are the same, but the characters tend to inhabit the same space.
Part of the reason for this change came from the fact that Nora and Delia Ephron felt the story never left its theatrical roots. They wanted to open up the film and make it more visual and dynamic than a play. They also wanted the store to sell a product that interested them. Delia Ephron suggested turning the store into a bookstore.
This solution solved the problem by centering the story around a real New York issue: large bookstores driving small bookstores out of business due to the cost of the rents. In the commentary, Ephron describes how small independent bookstores would be driven out of business by larger independent bookstores before those got driven out of business by mega bookstores.
It also solved another problem: why would these characters hate each other in the first place? This solution examines how each business model treats books. Joe Fox’s bookstore treats books as products. The store clerks do not tend to know their stock. Kathleen Kelly sees books as art. They serve as an edifying experience that helps shape children. Her bookstore includes many first editions of famous children’s books. According to Ephron’s commentary, the director most heavily believes in a speech that Kathleen has about books becoming a part of a child’s identity. This story will present both sides of this issue.
Over the years, You’ve Got Mail has received much criticism for its deceitful plot and product placement.
However, many of these criticisms of the film existed at the time it came out. Washington Post staff writer Michael O’Sullivan described the film as an extended commercial for AOL and Starbucks, both of which feature prominently here. TV Guide writer Maitland McDonagh said that it was hard not to flinch at how so much product placement (IBM, Starbucks, AOL) was put in a film about the ruthless corporate destruction of small business. David Edelstein of Slate compared the film unfavorably to The Shop Around The Corner, which took place during the depression and had real economic consequences. By contrast, he describes You’ve Got Mail as unknowingly being “a romantic parable of the joys of being absorbed by a conglomerate.” The criticisms about the film supporting big business have been around since its release.
Unlike 1998, more people now have a platform to express however they feel about a film. I will not say that this film is a completely perfect work of art, but I would like to discuss some of the interesting choices that Ephron makes within the film.
For You’ve Got Mail, Ephron chose a more complex and nuanced set of writing choices than many other comedies of the time. In many ways, these comedy choices are similar to comedies of the day, but Ephron puts her own spin on the material.
This film exists as a personal work, but everybody contributed to it in some way. Many of the events happened to the Ephron sisters. For example, there is an elevator scene that is similar to something that happened to Delia Ephron. Another scene where Tom Hanks talks a sales clerk into running Meg Ryan’s credit card was based on a similar experience that happened to Nora Ephron. Meg Ryan came up with the idea of her character twirling with her mother. Tom Hanks came up with the “legal addictive stimulants” line. Everybody adds a personal touch to this movie.
The Story centers on Kathleen Kelly, the owner of the Shop Around The Corner. As the owner of a small bookstore, Kathleen finds her business threatened when a much larger bookstore moves into her neighborhood. At first, she is in denial, but it slowly dawns on her that she cannot compete with such a large bookstore and she must move on to a new part of her life.
In this film, Kathleen has to find her voice as part of her character arc. However, finding her voice does not necessarily mean that everything is completely positive. Ephron describes Kathleen’s store as holding her back from finding her voice. When Kathleen loses her store and has to start over, she starts to write a little bit.
In the commentary, Ephron discusses how the audience sees the complexity of the issue through Kathleen’s perspective. After leaving her bookstore, she goes to Fox books and realizes that the store she described as horrifying throughout the film is not as bad as she initially thought. She sees all the children gathered around the department. Her store could not possibly create the same space as Fox books.
The Supporting Cast
For this film, Nora and Delia Ephron create a distinct supporting cast that functions a little differently than the cast in other comedy movies. The antagonist is not quite the scumbag that most of these movies turn the character into. Similarly, the supporting characters are not there to stand around and talk about the protagonist’s life. These characters actually have lives and do things around the stores.
Joe Fox serves as the primary antagonist of the story. However, he is also the love interest to Kathleen. The push-pull conflict of the story comes from this dynamic. In the commentary, Ephron talks about how Kathleen falls for Joe not just because he is played by Tom Hanks, but because he actually listens to her, unlike her boyfriend. In the story, Joe acts helpful to Kathleen online and spiteful to her in real life. He even suggests that she fight for her business, which leads to some embarrassment.
Joe Fox begins the story as an unscrupulous businessman who uses The Godfather (1972) as his motto (“It’s not personal, it’s business”). Over the course of the story, Joe Fox will learn how deeply personal this is to Kathleen and will have to readjust his own feelings to her. When they agree to meet, Joe learns who she is. He goes in and has a very encounter meeting with her.
Thinking that her pen pal has stood her up, she sends him a message. He reads a message she sends to him. Realizing how this has affected her, he decides to write something back. After writing two lies and deleting them, he tells the partial truth.
This leads to the second half of the movie where Joe slowly realizes how truly special Kathleen is to him and how much he actually wants her in his life. He now tries to work his way back into life. In this section, Ephron describes sex sneaking into the movie in a gentle innocent way.
Framing of the Antagonist
This storytelling choice presents a complex antagonist than most of these stories do. The film frames him as unscrupulous, but more likable than the rest of his family. In other films from the time period, the film presents such characters as a villainous bully out to destroy the protagonist. Grumpy Old Men (1993) has an IRS agent (Buck Henry) trying to take Jack Lemmon’s house. Another film I covered on this site, Three to Tango (1999), featured an unscrupulous businessman (Dylan McDermott) out to challenge the protagonist.
In all of these stories, these characters set the stakes. However, the film provides a more complex take on him than the audience would usually see. He ends up having a more conflicted viewpoint on this situation because he realizes what the store means to her and how this story affects her on a personal level.
Kathleen Kelly also gets to have complex feelings towards Joe. She does not just angrily scorn him or fawn over him. She finds herself attracted to him, but also finds what he stands for repulsive.
This antagonist gets the most mixed reception because it requires the Antagonist to keep the Protagonist in the dark until the end of the movie. This part of the story, mixed with the bookstore plot adds a different take on the story. In many romantic comedy stories, almost all the behavior would be described as creepy and manipulative if it happened in real life. This CollegeHumor sketch probably sums it up perfectly.
Liberal writer Frank Navasky (Greg Kinnear) is the passionate yet oblivious boyfriend of Kathleen at the beginning of the movie. In the commentary, Ephron describes him as an idealistic man who cannot see past anything that clashes with his viewpoint of the world. Everything is a call to arms of sorts for him.
A luddite, Frank refuses to write on a computer and collects many typewriters in case they do not exist any more. Early on, he makes a point that tech is the end of Western civilization based on one small newspaper article.
Unlike other Romantic Comedies, Frank and Kathleen break up amicably after realizing that they are no longer right for eachother. As a performer, Kinnear wanted to put a new spin on what Ephron describes as the “Ralph Bellamy” role. For the readers who do not know, Bellamy was a character actor who would compete with Cary Grant for the affections of the leading lady. In the original script, Kinnear ended up with Joe’s girlfriend (Parker Posey).
Since Kinnear did not want to be the butt of every joke, so they came up with the idea of him falling in love with a woman (Jane Adams) who interviews him on television. The film suggests a change in Frank by having him say that it does not matter what politics the woman has.
The 1990s and Today
The character flaw with Frank is not his politics per se, but his stubbornness and inability to see past any ideological disagreement. People in his same political sphere think he is over the top about how he writes and acts about many issues. At one point, he asks if an article he wrote was a bit much. Throughout the film, Ephron has many liberal characters who are a little over the top. Those types of characters existed in New York at the time.
On the other side, Ephron portrays the conservative Fox family as sexually dysfunctional and unfulfilled. From his father and Grandfather’s relationships, he has an aunt Annabel (Hallee Hirsh) and half-brother Matt (Jeffrey Scaperrotta), both of whom are much younger than him. Joe’s father Nelson (Dabney Coleman) has slept with at least two of his nannies and has been through multiple relationships, all of which have left him unfulfilled.
Since this is 1998, the political landscape was much less divisive and a character like this played differently. This was a time where films set at the White House such as Dave (1993) and The American President (1995) came out regularly. Characters from opposing political views fell in love in movies like He Said, She Said (1991) and Speechless (1994). In real life, Democratic strategist James Carville and Republican strategist Mary Matalin had gotten married 5 years before this. In this sense, You’ve Got Mail documents a certain time in America that is very much unlike now.
The Best Friends
In this movie, the best friends do not really have big scenes where they tell the protagonist to go after what she wants in a meaningful way. The characters do not really give Kathleen or Joe advice about how to pursue each other.
In the commentary, Ephron describes the employees of Kathleen’s store as a little family. Two younger employees George (Steve Zahn) and Christina (Heather Burns) work under Kathleen. Birdie (Jean Stapleton), a friend of Kathleen’s late mother, still works at the store too. Each character talks a lot about what is going on in their life rather than just being the comic relief that the protagonist can deliver exposition to.
While they do talk to Kathleen about her life, they also do not have many of the big scenes that other movies like this have. Characters don’t tell Kathleen down that Frank is wrong for her. The closest the audience gets is having Christina give a small smile in the background when an author (Veanne Cox) describes Frank as a “nut” to Kathleen. This makes their interactions feel a little more organic and a little less staged.
At the end of the story, Ephron makes sure that the audience feels that these characters will be fine. Birdie is revealed to be independently wealthy. Joe Fox brings up that George now works for the bookstore.
Joe Fox’s family is a very old money New York family who runs this large book empire. They serve as the primary antagonists in the story, but the film does not portray them as outright malevolent. They mainly portray them as oblivious to the people in the world around them.
The original 3 hour cut of the film featured more with the family, including a scene with Joe’s 10-year-old aunt Annabel. Early in the film, Joe Fox goes to The Shop Around The Corner with Annabel and his 4-year-old half-brother Matt. In an interview with Today, Hirsh describes a deleted scene later on where Annabel learns that The Shop Around the Corner has closed down because of the Fox books business model and gets really angry at Joe over it. This scene took place in a Vietnamese restaurant that is no longer in existence.
Similar to Kathleen’s employees, Joe’s family does not explicitly tell him to go after Kathleen at the end of the story. The moment when Joe decides to pursue Kathleen comes when he is talking to his father Nelson, whose fiance has just left him for the family nanny. At the end of the conversation, he says that he has never had somebody that “fills his heart with joy” and asks his son rhetorically if he has experienced it. This leads to Joe deciding to go see Kathleen.
Most movies feature characters who deliver the exposition and backstory of the movie. In the best case scenarios, the audience does not notice the exposition because of the character choices the filmmaker makes.
Early in this film, Kathleen’s mother Cecilia has died and left the store to her. The exposition of Kathleen’s mother comes not from her, but from Joe Fox’s grandfather who dated her one time. This makes the information more personal to a character rather than just a throwaway line. To fill out the role, they cast veteran character actor John Randolph. All of these small choices make something that could be boring and tedious more interesting.
The Shop Around The Corner took place in what Ephron describes as “a nondescript Budapest.” In an interview with Charlie Rose, Ephron described wanting to bring that charm to New York.
In making the film, Nora Ephron wanted to make New York feel like a small town. At the opening, she has a man leaving bags of food outside of a store because it contradicts the idea of big city living. Ephron viewed New York as a bunch of small communities. She saw the internet as analogous to this idea as well.
With that in mind, Ephron chose locations that have not been in a movie before, such as Zabar’s and the 79th street boat basin. She also stops the movie just to admire little details about New York. For example, she has a scene where a ton of flour is pumped into H&H bagels because it is a New York moment that nobody has seen in the movies. All of these add to a rich setting.
Product Placement as location
While this movie does focus on a corporation driving a smaller bookstore out of business, it does have product placement. However, one thing I do like about the product placement in this movie is that it allows the audience to often see locations that Ephron loves in New York City. Many critics and video essays focus squarely on Starbucks, but there are other restaurants and shops that get to be in the movie too.
For example, the production filmed at Zabar’s. One of the stipulations was that they showed the name prominently multiple times in various shots. Ephron complied and got to include this location in the movie.
References and Inspirations
As a director, Nora Ephron had other interests besides popular American films and TV shows. Because of this, her films tend to have a richer texture than many other American films. She also has references and jokes about classic American films in her films, but they are not all that she is inspired by.
You’ve Got Mail has an extended bit about The Godfather and going to the mattresses. All of these references build into what the story is about. In this movie, The Godfather’s famous line “it’s not personal, it’s business” takes on new meaning because it is how Joe Fox justifies his business model. Meeting Kathleen tests his viewpoints on business.
However, the story does focus around a children’s book store. In You’ve Got Mail, Ephron references many books. Ephron points out that the audience knows how long the bookstore has been there because they have a cardboard cutout of the children’s book character Eloise. That character first appeared in print in 1955.
Inspired by the 19th century novelists who used to solve the problems of their leads in Romantic comedies with long letters, Ephron decided to update the trope. In filmmaking, this proves difficult to film and usually leads to characters reading them on “a long walk on the moor.” In the audio commentary, Ephron talks about wanting to do something similar with the messages. Since instant messages have fewer restrictions, Ephron can play with how this looks visually.
With this film, Ephron makes choices that will make a series of conversations more visually and dramatically interesting. Not every scene is shot the same or lit the same as other Romantic Comedies. These choices help make the little scenes pop a little bit more.
Early on in the commentary, Ephron describes how she puts as many scenes in the opening hour away from the computers. This allows the audience to see some variety before moving into the second hour of characters typing to each other. With the computer scenes, Ephron utilizes camera movement and specific editing choices to make this material much more engaging.
Comedy has always focused more on performance than other genres, such as thriller or horror. In a discussion with Jennifer Jason Leigh, comedy actor Seth Rogen talked about how modern comedy is filmed. Rogen described how actors are asked to stand or sit in one spot, speak, and improvise to get coverage for the scene. The Production edit the footage into a coherent scene.
In contrast, Nora Ephron films the dialogue scenes in a more distinctly visual way with blocking that changes the footage. Since she wants to open this material up, she makes the two shots more dynamic. The scene where Joe visits a sick Kathleen at home has him pulling the covers towards her, which changes his position in the scene.
In the audio commentary, Ephron discusses how she feels that comedies do not have to have the brightest lighting possible to appeal to people. She uses Meg Ryan’s apartment in the film as an example. Like many of the film’s interiors, the apartment is a set. Early on, the camera heads into the apartment. This is accomplished by dissolving through the leaves on the trees.
However, unlike other comedies from this period, Ephron and cinematographer John Lindley choose to film the set with lighting that is a little more realistic. There are actually shadows that come in through the window that suggest the time of day. It is not a purely bright image that suggests an artificial atmosphere.
They also choose to include lighting that can be moody at times. One sequence has Joe and Kathleen messaging each other on the computer back and forth at night. Instead of filming them in perfect 3 point lighting with no shadows, Ephron chooses to light Kathleen from the side. The film also lights Tom Hanks in silhouette. Such choices let the audience in on how the characters feel in a visual manner.
Ephron and her costume designer often choose costumes that are not overtly colorful. Characters often wear blues, browns, grays, and more subdued colors. In some scenes, Meg Ryan wears monochromatic clothing. This choice makes a costume choice of the more ridiculous characters seem more out of place rather than just seeming quirky.
Jumping the Line
In each of these stories, there is a long sequence where the pen pals meet for the first time. The male lead realizes who the female lead is after his friend sees through a window and tells him. He now must decide what to do.
With that, he goes in and sits across from her at her table. Not knowing who he is, she asks him to sit somewhere else until her real date gets there. He gets up and moves to the table behind her before retaking his original seat when they get into the argument. The scene ends with the male lead leaving after the female lead insults his status in life.
In the scene, Joe Fox “bumps into” Kathleen Kelly at Cafe Lalo. It plays pretty much the same way with changes mainly made to the dialogue. For example, instead of calling Joe Fox “a clerk,” she calls him “a suit.”
In this scene, Ephron wanted to find a way to make a long scene work visually. To accomplish this goal, the film purposefully jumps the 180 degree line. This line is what keeps actors on the same side of the camera when having a conversation. However, Ephron does this purposefully. She changes over to a different set of camera angles when Tom Hanks returns to his original seat. By breaking the rule, the film breaks up the scene and makes the audience see the space differently.
Films work partially because of their editing. This film has some great choices that were added after the camera stopped rolling.
In the editing process, Ephron found that a couple of choices did not work. For example, in a scene where Tom Hanks gives Meg Ryan business advice over the internet, the scene was originally shot and edited as a splitscreen. The process revealed that the scenes worked better if they intercut Hanks and Ryan due to anticipation of messaging.
Visual and Sound Editing
One of the reasons this movie works as well as it does is because of variety in the editing. The film has many conversations, but it also includes many visual scenes of characters moving around and activity among extras.
In a scene after one of Joe’s emails, the film transitions to a scene of Kathleen and Christina talking about the emails. Ephron did this for a few reasons. It broke up the monotony of cutting from one interior to another. It was a nice street that had a curve to it. Little choices like this make the film work better.
In many scenes, the editing of the film will transition scenes through sound and dialogue seamlessly. A scene of Birdie biting into a sandwich will transition to Kathleen taking something out of a bag. A scene of Joe guessing what the screen name of her online pen pal means will transition as if the conversation is happening. It will also give the audience a variety by transitioning from standard 2 shot coverage to a wide shot where the characters walk around a farmer’s market.
While many soundtracks use popular songs, Ephron takes a more specific approach to music in this. With this film and Sleepless in Seattle, Ephron chooses songs that are childish yet different. This is not a criticism. Ephron describes the songs this way in the commentaries.
For this film, Ephron describes choosing songs that are similar to Children’s books, starting with “The Sun will come out Tomorrow” from Annie (1977), the only song written into the script. From there, she chose many songs that would fill out the movie based on this idea.
Ephron chooses to end the film’s story on Harry Nilsson singing “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” from The Wizard of Oz (1939). To prepare the audience for this, she plays a few Nilsson songs on the soundtrack. Early on, the soundtrack plays a few chords from “Somewhere over the Rainbow,” followed by Nilsson’s “The Puppy Song.” These small choices at the beginning of the movie suggest its ending.
She also peppers in a few other Nilsson songs throughout the film. According to Ephron’s commentary, she had been trying to get Nilsson’s Remember in a movie for years before this. She also includes both Nilsson’s original version of “I Guess the Lord Must Be in New York City” and a cover by Sinead O’Connor in the end credits.
You’ve Got Mail is a movie that could have only been made in the late 1990s. In an interview with Today, child actress Hallee Hirsh describes it as an era where Amazon had not taken over the big bookstores yet. Looking at a 1998 movie in 2022 is not going to render the same experience it did back in the day for multiple cultural reasons.
One of my favorite interviews is an interview by Jonathan Demme for the Criterion release of Something Wild (1986). In the interview, Demme talks about filmmakers as visual anthropologists of the era they live in. In many ways, You’ve Got Mail exists as a product of the late 1990s, a time period that was far from perfect itself. However, it makes choices that many movies from that time would not choose to make.