Back to 1998, and the early days of the modish fad that was known as ‘the internet’; even the title You’ve Got Mail dates the film, since I can’t remember the last time I actually saw these words on a computer or phone. We know we have mail, we have mail constantly, and we don’t need reminders, so it’s quite surprising when the characters wax lyrical about how excited they get about the novel concept of email.
Nora Ephron’s remake of Ernst Lubitsch’s The Shop Around the Corner doesn’t say too much about the online world; one of the curiosities here is that Kathleen (Meg Ryan) and Joe (Tom Hanks ) seem to be the only people in New York who have access to the internet. They’ve been emailing after stumbling across each other in a chat-room, not realising that they were also crossing paths in business. Kathleen is trying to keep her mother’s children’s bookshop from going bust, while Joe’s family have a big-box book superstore that’s soaking up all her business. Can the couple put aside their antagonism and recognise that their online interaction presents a romantic route forward?
Ephron was something of a rom-com master after the success of Sleepless in Seattle, and You’ve Got Mail has a similar classical feel; old standards on the soundtrack, precious few pratfalls and little slapstick, but meticulous depiction of character through clothes, soft-furnishings and monologues; she’s ditzy, insecure but determined, he’s smart and gets on well with everyone. But their collision course, as predicated by their different experiences of entrepreneurial bookselling, isn’t fully resolved; there’s no Garry Marshall-style big finish, just two people shedding their bad relationships and taking tentative steps towards a good one. As it stands, there’s barely a second in this film where Ryan’s character knows what’s happening, and Joe’s manipulations go on far too long. As always, rom-coms are so preoccupied with creating obstacles to relationships that they never consider what a relationship might actually be like.
If the ending isn’t satisfactory, the build-up is, with Hanks and Ryan both extremely likeable in a sugar-sweet confection ideally suited to their talents. Of course, the novelty of the internet didn’t last long before it became an all-pervasive, yet unexceptional add-on to life’s stresses. But the notion of the city streets being lost to small-businesses is bang-on; corporate stores which close down all the competition before vanishing due to megre profit margins, have been a problem ever since, and Ephron’s critique of modern living has an unexpected resonance as the world’s businesses shrink around us in 2020.