“You’ve Got Mail” is an attractively wrapped package expressly addressed to holiday audiences. The long-awaited reteaming of the “Sleepless in Seattle” combo of costars Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan and director Nora Ephron puts a fine contempo spin on the time-tested premise first used onscreen in Ernst Lubitsch’s “The Shop Around the Corner” (1939) and reworked for the musical “In the Good Old Summertime” (1949). The story of anonymous, affectionate pen pals who dislike each other in person, this winning romantic comedy and great date movie will be propelled to hefty B.O. by its alluring, high-powered stars and lack of other competition in this genre.
In many ways, new pic is the most successful version yet of this familiar premise. Originally penned as a play, “Parfumerie,” by Miklos Laszlo, Samson Raphaelson’s script for “The Shop Around the Corner” used a curio shop as the backdrop for the relationship that blossoms between feuding co-workers and secret correspondents Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan. In Robert Z. Leonard’s 1949 remake, set in a music shop, Judy Garland sparkles, although she and Van Johnson lack the chemistry of the earlier duo, and Leonard’s less subtle approach suffers without the Lubitsch touch.
Hanks and Ryan, meanwhile, already proved their chemistry in “Seattle,” a pic in which, ironically, they were rarely onscreen together. In this, their third outing as co-stars (the first was the less-successful “Joe vs. the Volcano”), they show why they are two of Hollywood’s most bankable and, in many ways, most traditional stars.
Hanks meshes the boyish charm of Jimmy Stewart with the earthy integrity of Spencer Tracy, and Ryan blends Kate Hepburn’s determined sensibility with the infectious ebullience of a Jean Arthur, turning in one of her best comic parts since the Ephron-scripted “When Harry Met Sally.”
Set in Gotham, pic boasts an opening sequence that nicely demonstrates how a pair of New Yorkers can walk the very same route every day without ever connecting. As corporate heir Joe Fox (Hanks) and shop owner Kathleen Kelly (Ryan) wend their way to work on the Upper West Side, they are mere footsteps — and yet worlds — apart. Joe is planning to open a mammoth, commercial book store a la Barnes and Noble, while Kathleen runs a tiny children’s bookshop dubbed, in a loving nod to Lubitsch, the Shop Around the Corner.
While Fox Books promises a cappuccino bar, snazzy architecture and sales discounts, the Shop Around the Corner offers a knowledgeable, caring staff, intimate group reading sessions and crafts for children.
Nora and Delia Ephron’s script keeps some of the salient elements of the Lubitsch-Raphaelson version, but adds some commendable new ones. Most pointedly, the writers provide very good reasons for the friction between the two lead characters. There’s a genuine professional rivalry between Joe and Kathleen, as his store threatens to put hers out of business.
When Joe and Kathleen meet, romantic sparks fly, but when she later learns he’s the mercenary entrepreneur about to steamroll her shop, her appreciation of his quick-witted charm gives way to disapproval of his soulless guile.
Both are involved in dull relationships, she with narcissistic columnist Frank Navasky (Greg Kinnear in a good turn), he with shallow editor Patricia Eden (Parker Posey, sparingly used in a rare studio outing).
Unwittingly, however, Joe and Kathleen are each other’s cyber soul mates. Exchanging daily e-mail under pseudonymous screen names, they discuss their favorite literature (hers is “Pride and Prejudice”) and films (his is “The Godfather”) and share their various aspirations.
Pic makes expert use of familiar Upper West Side locales that serve nicely to advance the storyline. Desperately trying to avoid Joe in the upscale grocery Zabars, Kathleen reluctantly finds he is her only ally when a cashier refuses her credit card. Ephron directs this scene and others with great economy and liveliness, finding welcome opportunities for her actors to use their gifts for physical as well as verbal comedy.
When the cyber pals finally agree to meet, Joe brings his colleague Kevin (David Chappelle) to size up his cyberpal through a cafe window. Realizing, to his chagrin, that she is the same woman who has publicly disparaged him, Joe balks, but later returns. Without revealing his online identity, he fakes a chance encounter, and, though he tries to be pleasant, they end up quibbling. This scene, lifted almost directly from the two earlier versions, still works mighty well.
The trick, then, for Joe is to convince Kathleen to fall for him and subtly to undermine her unflagging adoration for her cyber friend — or at least to convince her that he is a worthy rival for her affection. As they slowly build a friendship, Hanks has great fun with these scenes, and Ryan plays nicely off him, realizing, to her surprise, that she is starting to like him a great deal. When Joe has Kathleen where he wants her, he arranges for the final revelation, which goes a bit too smoothly to be truly convincing.
While stopping short of waxing philosophical, “You’ve Got Mail” makes a good point about the difference between public personae and private selves, indicating correctly how we can be more open with people we barely know, and how preconceptions and misapprehensions can endanger relationships. It’s also extremely timely for the late ’90s era of online dating.
Tech aspects are tops, and just right for the genre. John Lindley’s lensing renders Gotham almost squeaky clean and positively cozy. Veteran editor Richard Marks keeps the film well-paced and fast-moving, especially in sequences that alternate between Joe and Kathleen, weaving them together, yet pulling them apart. The soundtrack, filled with well-chosen oldies and classic hits, is assembled with a savvy eye toward CD sales.
On the down side, a good supporting cast is largely wasted in throwaway parts. Jean Stapleton, Steve Zahn and Dabney Coleman are among those done a disservice by roles either underwritten or cut almost to the point of total insignificance.
Macintosh computers and America Online should benefit from their product placement here, as should the prominently featured Starbucks, which Joe and Kathleen visit daily. There’s a deeply ironic note to that last point, Starbucks, of course, being the coffee giant that has challenged so many little coffeehouses and reportedly pushed more than a few of them out of business.