When a mega-chain superstore, Fox Books, begins building around the corner from her independently owned children’s bookstore, Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan) goes on the offensive to save her livelihood, going to toe to toe with Joe Fox (Tom Hanks) who is in charge of the build. At odds professionally, the two snipe and bicker with each other, all the while unaware that they’re also each other’s anonymous, online pen pal with whom they’ve struck up an intimate friendship.
You’ve Got Mail is a modernized remake of the Jimmy Stewart, Margaret Sullavan classic, The Shop Around the Corner (which is also the name of Kathleen’s bookstore as a nod to the original film). I feel like Nora Ephron absolutely nailed it by casting Hanks as Joe Fox, especially given the constant comparisons between him and Jimmy Stewart. Hanks possesses the right kind of nice guy charm that keeps Joe Fox from being an intolerable, apathetic jerk. Meg Ryan, as always, is charming and adorable as Kathleen but also finds a much-needed backbone when she finally decides to ‘go to the mattresses’ and fight Fox Books to try and save her store.
The movie is quite obviously dated now, as there is no more dial-up (the AOL dial-tone still makes me shudder with bad memories to this day!), and most people converse through social media rather than chat rooms. I’m not even sure how easy it would be to have an anonymous online pen pal anymore, given how visible we all are on the internet that it probably wouldn’t take much to track down someone’s profile, whether you mean to or not. In any case, I feel like You’ve Got Mail still holds up in the romance department. Ephron’s script (written with her sister, and playwright, Delia Ephron) is romantic and warm and also lends to some witty banter between the two leads that Hanks and Ryan deliver perfectly without missing a beat.
In a way, You’ve Got Mail also feels like something of a love letter to New York. We take the same journey with Joe and Kathleen, from fall through winter and into spring, and every shot of the changing seasons is beautifully captured, feeling as romantic as the online relationship itself. I wanted to visit The Shop Around the Corner, along with Fox Books and the cozy little cafe where Joe finally realizes that Kathleen is in fact, Shopgirl (her online screen name). It felt like they were living in a different world, and obviously, this is merely a fantasy of what it would be like to actually live in New York (and only if you have the money for an amazing apartment in a nice neighborhood), but Ephron does a marvelous job at capturing the city’s magical energy.
The supporting characters are funny and full of personality, whereas so many secondary characters in these movies tend to feel wooden and one dimensional. Greg Kinnear and Parker Posey play Frank and Patricia, Kathleen and Joe’s respective significant others at the time of their ongoing correspondence. There are obviously some questions here about infidelity, but it’s slightly glossed over as you see Frank (who is somewhat bland, but thankfully not a jerk) flirting with a journalist on television, and Patricia is so self-absorbed and shallow that you’re not likely to feel too bad for her when Joe inevitably ends their relationship.
Kathleen’s employees, Jean Stapleton, Heather Burns, and Steve Zahn all have their moments and one-liners, though I wish they had used Zahn a bit more, as I feel he’s a bit underrated as a comedic actor. And of course, Dave Chappelle as Joe’s employee and friend, Kevin. Kevin doesn’t really have much to do here but play Joe’s confidante. Thankfully Chappelle takes what he does have and makes it pretty memorable.
I would say my favorite part, beyond the snarky banter between Joe and Kathleen, occur after Joe realizes he wants to be with Kathleen. He’s aware that Kathleen is Shopgirl, but she has no clue he’s actually NY152, and he plays her confidante as they become friends and she tells him about her online friendship/romance, which Joe uses to his advantage. Yes, I feel like this could have been manipulative but there is no malice behind his intentions. There is a lightness to the ending of the film, as the two become actual friends and Kathleen begins to struggle with her feelings for Joe while still wanting to meet NY152. Ryan and Hanks’s chemistry has stayed consistently charming since Joe Versus the Volcano, and even if they never film another romantic comedy together, I’ll be more than satisfied with You’ve Got Mail finishing off the ‘Hanks and Ryan Trilogy’ of romance.