Thursday, April 10, 2014

Happy Fifth Anniversary To Me: You’ve Got Mail Is How I Spent (Part Of) It!

The Good: Concept, Final third of the movie, Acting is good
The Bad: Predictable, Drags in the middle
The Basics: After almost twenty years of avoiding it, my wife compelled me to watch You’ve Got Mail and I found it to be good, not great.

Tonight is my five year anniversary with my wife and as the night progresses, we’ve done all of the usual anniversary things (albeit out of order by conventional standards, I think). Tonight, she managed to get me to watch a movie that I think I had no interest in whatsoever and might even have boycotted at the time of its release (send me thousands of CD-ROMs in the mail over the years, AOL, I’ll boycott the film based on your catchphrase!). As it stands, it was not until tonight that I finally saw You’ve Got Mail. You’ve Got Mail is a thoroughly appropriate film for my wife and I for an anniversary (traditionally a time to reminisce about relationships beginning); she and I met on the internet and had a very short courtship before meeting in person, moving in together, and marrying! As such, the speed of the relationship in You’ve Got Mail did not seem at all off to me.

Despite any criticisms which might follow, You’ve Got Mail is better than I expected it to be. My preconception of the film was a cheesy romance film that largely featured two people sitting in front of their computers typing as opposed to interacting in person. The truth of You’ve Got Mail is that it accurately captures the early excitement of on-line relationships and ironically, had the movie focused more on that, it would have been a better film.

Opening with Kathleen Kelly, who is in a romantic relationship with the technophobic columnist Frank Navasky, excitedly e-mailing a mysterious stranger she met in an on-line chatroom for people over thirty, Kathleen’s life is at a turning point she does not yet know about. Unbeknownst to her, her on-line pen pal is Joe Fox, a businessman who is bringing a giant, discount book chain to New York City. Kelly, who inherited her mother’s children’s book store, tries not to see the arrival of Fox & Sons Books as a threat to her business. Joe and Kathleen meet one day at Kathleen’s book store while Joe is out with his (very) young brother and aunt (who, thanks to the family’s complicated geneology, is about twenty years younger than he is). While Joe and Kathleen continue to e-mail one another without knowing who the other is, when Kathleen learns who Joe is at a party, she takes an instant dislike to him.

On the advice of Joe (who does not have details about Kathleen’s specific business to know that he is operating against himself), Kathleen begins to wage a public relations campaign against Joe and his father’s mass-market bookstore. Unfortunately, the result is less-than-stellar and Kathleen has to close her book store. In the wake of Joe ruining her business, Kathleen and Joe begin to run into one another more frequently, with Joe learning that Kathleen is the woman he has been corresponding with on-line. Despite Joe dropping clues to Kathleen that he is her online suitor, Kathleen’s prejudice against Joe takes some time to burn off so their in-person romance can actually begin.

You’ve Got Mail suffers from being an erratic movie that seems to abandon its own premise instead of developing it. While usually, getting away from the film’s catchphrase conceit – in this case the e-mail relationship – would be smart and work well, with You’ve Got Mail, the opposite happens. The movie gets so caught up in the real world, adversarial relationship between Joe and Kathleen and their competing book stores and business philosophies that when the e-mail relationship is abruptly dropped and then equally abruptly picked up much later on in the movie, it feels like the film’s writers actually forgot what they were trying to say with the film.

As a result, You’ve Got Mail is a rare example of a film that has a vastly better final third than the rest of the movie. After mortgaging its premise for most of the airtime, the movie comes back to reassert its original idea in a good way . . . but almost too long after the viewer stops caring. In simpler terms, You’ve Got Mail would have been better if it had either dropped the e-mail relationship near the beginning and moved past that entirely or stuck with it more consistently. As it stands, the relationships become troublingly rendered on both fronts: Kathleen seems unnecessarily dim and Joe is presented with a weird dichotomy (he speaks like a sage, but is treated like a knave).

On the acting front, You’ve Got Mail is more a triumph for Meg Ryan than it is for Tom Hanks. The two play their roles of Kathleen and Joe without the trademark on-screen chemistry that made them box office draws when paired together in the late-90’s. That said, Ryan has a much perkier physical performance than in anything else I have seen her in. She bounces through the beginning of You’ve Got Mail in a watchable and cute way that sells her character (instead of making one feel like they are watching Meg Ryan). Tom Hanks plays Joe Fox with a seriousness and dryness that is compelling to watch. Hanks and Ryan play, as is predictable for a Nora Ephron film, with an incredible ensemble cast that includes Parker Posey (Joe’s initial girlfriend, Patricia), Greg Kinnear, Steve Zahn, Jean Stapleton, Dave Chappelle, and Katie Finneran.

Ultimately, You’ve Got Mail is an enjoyable romance film, but it does not have the timeless quality of some other romantic works from the 1990s and that makes it feel more dated and passé . . . just like AOL.

For other modern romantic movie classics, please check out my reviews of:
When Harry Met Sally . . .
Love, Actually
The American President


For other movie reviews, please check out my Film Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2014 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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