Tom and Meg Film Festival: You’ve Got Mail (retro review)

(image courtesy IMP Awards)

They were heady days back in the late ’90s.

Back before omnipresent ads that serve you up ads for products you only thought you might want seconds earlier or Twitter became a bonfire of shouted opinions or inboxes became a stressful hallmark of cubicle serfdom, receiving an email or chatting online to someone from across the country and the world, was a thing of wonder and delight.

Oh, the possibilities! Oh, the excitement! Who knows who you might encounter and how they might change your life in ways that would never have happened back in the days of rotary dial phone calls? Or when meeting someone, that special life-energising someone, depended on a physical meeting that defied the twin odds of distance and time?

That world that might seem hard to imagine now is the one in which Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan) runs a sweet, fairylight-strewn window children’s bookseller named The Shop Around the Corner, a fixture on the Upper West Side of New York for 42 years, first run by her mother and now her.

Staffed by a loveable, close team – Birdie (Jean Stapleton), Christina (Heather Burns and George (Steve Zahn) – who spend their Christmas parties singing obscure but heartwarming carols around a piano in a quintessential warm and inviting New York apartment, the shop is vintage old school retailing – small, personal and just comprehensive enough to feel like you have an enticing choice.

It is, in fact everything that the antagonist, Joe Fox (Tom Hanks) in the Nora Ephron-directed (to a script she co-wrote with frequent collaborator sister Delia) You’ve Got Mail – the second romantic comedy starring the chemistry-resplendent pair of Ryan and Hanks she directed after the luminously transportive Sleepless in Seattle ) – whose family runs a series of Borders-like mega bookstores, is looking to wipe from the face of the earth.

In hindsight of course, where independent bookstores are now on the up-and-up emboldened by focus of community connection and superlative literary knowledge, the retailing apocalypse portrayed in the film never quite came to be but back in 1998, the year of the film’s release, there was a very real chance the world as we once knew it was going to end in a blizzard of in-store coffeehouses, steep discount deals and barn-like shopping splendour.

(image courtesy IMP Awards)

To Joe, and dad Nelson (Dabney Coleman) and grandfather Schuyler (John Randolph), it’s not personal, it’s just business but to Kathleen, for whom the store is almost the living embodiment of her much-loved, dearly-departed mother, the threat to her store’s existence feels very personal indeed.

She tells Joe as much when they finally meet, angry that he can be so charmingly, disarmingly cavalier about destroying the retail livelihoods of other people.

The thing is, this being a Nora Ephron film where the harsh brutalities of life come with a redemptive magical glow, Joe is actually a decent guy who doesn’t really buy into the dog-eat-dog self-centredness of publishing girlfriend Patricia (Parker Posey) and who is, at heart, someone who would sooner bring a competitor like Kathleen flowers than run her bookstore into the mega bookstore overtrodden ground.

Naturally, he and Kathleen are connected by a delightful contrivance, one that will test what they think they know about themselves and others; in the case of You’ve Got Mail, a near-living, breathing advertisement for then internet behemoth AOL, it was their correspondence, under anonymous user names, that laid bare their lives in the kind of heart-stoppingly honest ways they never attempted with girlfriend Patricia or self-involved newspaper columnist Frank (Greg Kinnear), neither of whom, in true Ephron fashion, are monsters but then neither do they truly get or deserve our lovebirds to be.

In the online world, Kathleen and Joe are beyond smitten, each ding and each gloriously giddy “You’ve got mail!” announcement carrying the thrill of connection that evades, despite their best efforts, in the rather humdrum real world, and promising, if both will allow themselves, the possibility of a fresh start with a New Person.

Being the wild west days of the internet where the world truly seemed capable of wholesale, transformative change, neither Kathleen nor Joe can resist the lure of their illicit friendship which provides a balm and diversion to lives that aren’t really delivering for them in any kind of meaningful way.

(image courtesy IMP Awards)

We know that they know each other far deeper than their antagonistic passing exchanges would indicate but they don’t, an audience-in-the-know conceit that adds a delicious edge to a rom-com full of bristling “they’ll fall in love” antagonism and the end of all things which, we know, thanks to the Ephrons’ sparklingly immersive script, is in fact the beginning of the very best of things.

You’ve Got Mail inhabits a world where hope and dreams abound, that thrilling place between the unknowing and the realised, where anticipation burbles away with butterflies in your stomach frisson and you imagine a reality where what you hope for is actually standing right before you.

That it comes to pass in Ephron’s confected love letter to bookstores, reading, love and a New York wrapped in a postcard-gorgeous glow, is a given from the word go but how it happens? Ah, that is the supreme delight of a movie that knows that we all want that magical fairytale ending and sets out to deliver to our keyboard, clutching hands.

And it really does deliver.

Those final scenes where Joe knows who Kathleen is but she remains blissfully unaware (thought she thinks he might be the one; witness the scene where he tends to her mid-flu) throughout their growing real-world friendship that he is NY152 to her Shopgirl, are the stuff of blissful ecstasy and when they finally meet and the penny drops and she utters those immortal words of relieved joy – “I wanted it to be you. I really wanted it to be you” – you can be forgiven for swooning like a lovestruck teenager.

For here is not only love made flesh, hope given body, but the promise of the internet fulfilled, all that promise of the ringing, discordant dial tone sprung alive with such vivacity and fervour that you can’t help but feel like anew, far more exciting, age has begun.

We may all be a little more circumspect these days in an age of trawling bots, sniping trolls and vicious online exchanges, but back when You’ve Got Mail burst upon a messaging-hungry world, the internet is hope, it is reality-banishing dreams and, in the consummately deft hands of Ephron who knew just what our hearts require, internet or no internet, it is love, of the kind that stops worlds, reinvents possibilities and brings about the fulfilment of everyone we never truly we truly needed or wanted.

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