Old-fashioned romantic comedies are an endangered species, and in these generally unromantic days it's always a pleasant surprise to find a decent one like Nora Ephron's You've Got Mail.
Ephron, of course, made her bones 5 1/2 years ago with the huge hit Sleepless in Seattle, but since then she's given us a failed screwball farce (1994's Mixed Nuts) and a commercially successful but uninspired supernatural comedy (Michael, 1996). So it's not surprising that You've Got Mail blatantly tries to re-create the winning formula of Sleepless in Seattle, with the same leads (Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan) in a slightly similar plot.
Sleepless was structured as a long tease: Two people -- whom the audience knows are made to be together -- have tenuous knowledge of each other but manage not to meet until the film's final scenes. In You've Got Mail the two have shared intimate knowledge as pseudonymous e-mail correspondents; when they meet in real life, neither realizing the other as the beloved correspondent, they development an intense dislike for each other. The tease here is: When will each realize that his/her most hated enemy and most loved friend are one and the same?
The plot will be familiar to film and musical buffs; it's an updating of Ernst Lubitsch's wonderful 1940 comedy The Shop Around the Corner, which was later remade as a film musical (1949's In the Good Old Summertime) and as a (totally different) stage musical (She Loves Me).
The central modern element upon which Ephron bases her update is the Internet (replacing the original's snail mail). Although Kathleen Kelly (Ryan) has a nearly live-in relationship with boyish New York Observer columnist Frank Navasky (Greg Kinnear), she is "cheating" online with someone she only knows by the login "NY152." NY152 is really Joe Fox (Hanks), who likewise sneaks away from live-in girlfriend Patricia Eden (Parker Posey) to "cheat" with Kelly, whom he knows only as "Shopgirl."
The cheating is emotional and romantic, not sexual. (If there's any hot-chatting going on, Ephron is discreet enough not to show it.) But it's cheating nonetheless. The two have fallen in love by e-mail and are simultaneously eager and terrified about meeting in real life.
By coincidence they do meet one day and actually take a liking to each other ... until Kathleen realizes that Joe is her mortal business enemy. She is the owner/manager of a children's bookstore called the Shop Around the Corner (the name is the film's most blatant internal acknowledgment of its source), which she inherited from her mother. After 40 years it's become a beloved neighborhood landmark, but now it's being threatened by a Fox's Books, a chain superstore opening up across the street.
Joe is the mastermind behind the Fox chain, which he runs with his oft-married dad (Dabney Coleman) and even-more-oft-married granddad (John Randolph). Fox's is depicted as one of the current breed of successful, cappuccino-drenched bookstore chains (Borders, Barnes and Noble), and in their hearts both Joe and Kathleen know that the Shop Around the Corner is doomed.
Kathleen plays her one trump card -- a boyfriend with an influential newspaper column. Frank stirs up public support for her beleaguered little enterprise. (Frank's handling of his obvious journalistic conflict of interest is glossed over, which is a shame. We anticipate Joe's launching a muckraking counterattack, which never happens.)
The night the two pen pals are to finally meet, Joe discovers the truth, and keeps his identity a secret from Kathleen, leaving her to think she's been stood up by NY152 and breaking her heart. The rest of the film is the sometimes comic, sometimes poignant dance between the two, as each inevitably heads toward a reconciliation between online and real-life personae.
Much of the success of this kind of story rests on the casting. Coming into the film, the leads carry an immense amount of goodwill, but the script doesn't allow either to be nearly as likable as in their previous pairing. Joe is a bit of a selfish bastard, and Kathleen has a little too much touchy-feely ditziness.
Unlike Lubitsch's film, which took place on a sound-stage fantasy of Budapest, You've Got Mail is set in a relatively realistic New York City, which makes some of its less authentic moments more jarring. Kathleen's breakup with Frank is unbelievably mellow. A memory image of Kathleen and her mother comes across as intolerably saccharine. And a scene in which Joe, still Kathleen's mortal enemy, is affectionate to her in her bedroom registers as downright creepy rather than romantic; in the milieu the film has established, Kathleen would likely grab the nearest blunt object and bash in his noggin.
Despite these flaws, much of You've Got Mail is funny and touching in precisely that old-fashioned way that many of us miss so much. Some of that is a holdover from the Lubitsch film, but much of it comes from Ephron and her collaborators. One has to give Ephron credit for doing so many of the right things in this world of craven and unnecessary remakes. She chose a film that, perfect as it was, at least had some rationale -- the changes wrought in the shift from mail to e-mail -- for being remade. (That said, not much is done to exploit or explore those changes.) Unlike the recent Meet Joe Black, which retold Death Takes a Holiday (1934), with You've Got Mail Ephron gives full credit to the original's writers. And unlike many remakes -- most notoriously the recent Psycho -- she isn't simply ripping off the earlier movie; she's taking one of the central ideas and spinning a new story around it. She's added Joe's and Kathleen's lovers as characters; she's changed the two principals' relationship from co-workers to business rivals; and by making Joe a mogul she's tossed out the original's concern with the lives of the "little people."
While one has to respect her decisions, they also make the movie a disappointment when compared with its model. For its first third the movie's wit and charm work only in fits and starts: The opening credit sequence is wonderful; the scene of Joe spending the day with a pair of kids drags badly. (The occasional use of "comedy" music in the score, presumably to shore up sagging scenes, only makes things worse.) Ultimately the screenplay lacks the gemlike near-perfection of The Shop Around the Corner.
And then suddenly, roughly 45 minutes in, there's a scene that elevates the movie, generating the loudest laughs and deepest emotions. It is, in fact, the one scene that is lifted almost line for line from Samson Raphaelson's 58-year-old screenplay, when Joe realizes Shopgirl's real identity. It encapsulates both the best and worst of Ephron's work here: Her admirable decision to make something basically new, and her perhaps inevitable inability to make that something come close to matching the brilliance of Lubitsch and Raphaelson.