Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan are a charming screen couple. From Joe vs. the Volcano (in which they are three charming screen couples), to Nora Ephron's Sleepless in Seattle, to the brand-new charmer, You've Got Mail, now burning up the box offices of movieplexes everywhere, Hanks and Ryan are appealing, appealing, appealing. Lock 'em up in solitary for a year, and they'll come out throwing sparks.
You've Got Mail is a remake of the Jimmy Stewart-Margaret Sullavan film, The Shop Around the Corner, directed by Ernst Lubitsch, and it pays its debt gratefully, acknowledging the screenplay for the original film in the opening credits, and naming Meg Ryan's character's children's bookstore "The Shop Around the Corner." Both films concern themselves with what happens when anonymous correspondents actually know each other in real life, but don't know that they are each other's soulmate-pen pals.
Joe Fox (Tom Hanks) is a rich-boy entrepreneur opening another of his chain bookstores just around the corner from Kathleen Kelly's long-established children's bookstore. In life, they are fierce competitors, but also lonely, listlessly going through the motions with Ms. Wrong (Parker Posey) and Mr. Wrong (Greg Kinnear), respectively. They're also, unknown to them, e-mailing each other with words of advice, encouragement, and their charmingly eccentric views on New York in the fall, The Godfather, and so on and so forth.
They hate each other, and they're the most exciting and promising things in each other's lives.
It's a great premise, and the Ephrons generally do it credit, though they seem a bit handcuffed by the structure of the original. The close parallelism of Kelly e-mails/Fox e-mails, Kelly breaks up/Fox breaks up, etc., etc. does establish a nice, relaxed rhythm, to a point, but it begins to feel a bit forced, and brings the loss of some good opportunities, as well.
For instance, Fox has a rather interesting extended family composed of his father (Dabney Coleman) and his father's girlfriend, and their little boy, who is the much older Fox's brother, and Fox's grandfather, who has a little girl only a little older than Fox's brother, and who is Fox's aunt. Everyone's charmed by this--Kelly even accuses Fox of renting the children to make himself look human--and yet, when this family gets together for Christmas, does Fox take advantage of this to win over Kelly? No, instead we get a rather cruddy scene of Kelly's extended chosen family singing badly. Stuff like this seems to be the result of the speed with which You've Got Mail was conceived and put into production.
Other problems in this vein include weak subplots and underdeveloped secondary characters--though Steve Zahn steals some scenes. But to be fair, these characters do serve their functions and are amusing props to the main story. There is also a remarkably annoying soundtrack, full of songs no self-respecting easy-listening station would ever play. (There is also, however, a Roy Orbison song I had never heard before, so all is forgiven.)
What really makes it all worthwhile is--Hanks and Ryan! How many times can I say it in one review? Together or apart, bantering or alone in rooms contorting themselves in reaction to each other's e-mails, Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan are so eminently watchable that I have tattooed them on my biceps.
Overall, though this is the weakest of the Hanks-Ryan films, it is also a worthy addition to the group. Now sit down, Nora and Delia, and write a movie, then put it in a drawer for awhile, like three or six months, and then rip it apart and put it back together again. Then call Tom and Meg and make the best of them all.
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