another independent bites the dust

Ah, New York. The sweet sound of connecting modems fills the air and the holy war waged between Microsoft and Apple gets its own movie in the guise of a romantic comedy-cum-bookstore-jihad acted out by Joe Fox (Tom Hanks), president of the big bad Fox Books conglomerate moving in on an independent store’s turf, and itty bitty The Shop Around the Corner proprietor Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan). What trouble technology hath wrought.

“You’ve Got Mail,” the latest predictably, comfortingly cloying film from writer/director Nora Ephron (“When Harry Met Sally,” “Sleepless in Seattle”), is based on the 1940 Jimmy Stewart-starring Lubitsch comedy, “The Shop Around the Corner.” The plot is the same, almost to the letter (pun intended): two people, combative in real life, strike up an anonymous correspondence with each other not knowing that they are really enemies. They fall in love through the mail and decide to meet. One person sees the other first and is scared off when he sees who his beloved really is, then rethinks his position. Ultimately, they live happily ever after. And if you think that’s a spoiler, you’re going in with your expectations way too high – there isn’t an unpredictable moment in “You’ve Got Mail,” but the execution is entertaining and feel-good enough that knowing the outcome makes the chick flick experience that much more fun.

Naming Kathleen’s bookshop after the original film is a nice touch, although you have to wonder if the characters have ever seen the film (especially when taking into account how familiar the characters of “Seattle” were with “An Affair to Remember”). Kathleen and Joe both seem blissfully oblivious to the perils of anonymous communication and the fun that fate likes to have with a couple of unsuspecting souls such as themselves. “You’ve Got Mail” is a worthy 90s technological update, substituting an email relationship for a snail mail pen pal. Juxtaposing the loving-yet-faceless correspondence with the kill-or-be-killed book business backdrop works seamlessly and quite nicely solves the improbability of having both Ryan and Hanks working retail in a gift shop, as Stewart and Margaret Sullavan did so many years ago.

In the midst of all of this vast predictability, this meant-to-be-together mentality, are a couple of extra significant others. Joe is involved with Patricia (the inimitable Parker Posey), a book editor who “makes caffeine nervous.” Kathleen is weighed down by pompous yet somehow self-deprecating newspaper columnist Frank (Greg Kinnear), an ingratiatingly arrogant sort who, as it turns out, is one of Patricia’s favorite authors. Can you see where this is going?

That’s right, nobody ends up significantly hurt in this film – just a few temporary aches and pains of the heart and all’s well that ends well. No catastrophic illnesses or learning disabilities, no poverty or family skeletons in the closet are to be found here. Nope, just good, clean, quintessentially American (and funny, that – the original 1940 film was set in Eastern Europe) lovesickness, neatly resolved in a couple of hours. Everyone goes home happy. This is a safe movie, a movie where you get exactly what you pay for. Sometimes that’s enough. Sometimes it isn’t. “You’ve Got Mail” is a crowd-pleaser, a money-maker – and a movie that is enough, no more, no less.

What better romantic comedy to star the on-screen super-couple of the 1990s? It is amazing to me that Ryan and Hanks have done only three films together including this one; it seems as if they’ve been in dozens, the way they play off each other and melt into their given characters as if they were a warm jacket or an old friend. Their chemistry is undeniable, although it remains to be seen if it would hold up once they’re naked in bed together. But as long as things stay clothed and cute, Ryan and Hanks (and Ephron) will remain forever inscribed in our hearts as the sweetest couple to grace the screen in recent memory.

Tue Dec 15 23:22:10 EST 1998
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