When Meg Ryan’s character gets the sniffles and retreats from the world in ”You’ve Got Mail,” she puts on pajamas and curls up in bed with her trusty laptop or a favorite book. Someday, when this cozy romantic comedy becomes a videocassette, it too will be a comfort object perfect for such moments.
Ms. Ryan, Tom Hanks and the archly funny Nora Ephron join forces, this time much more easily than they did in ”Sleepless in Seattle,” to make an inviting love story that entangles a man, a woman, a couple of computers and a New York neighborhood so picturesquely idealized that it feels like Paris. Even if you already live on the Upper West Side, you might feel the urge to move there before the film is over.
The essence of that place, its populace and this precise moment in our technological evolution are captured so endearingly here that ”You’ve Got Mail” becomes a New York story reminiscent of early Woody Allen romances, turning the characters into charmingly neurotic products of the place they call home. And in this setting, as far as ”You’ve Got Mail” is concerned, the most important landmarks are intimate little hangouts and good old-fashioned books.
Being firmly on the side of the angels, this film treasures the written word so proudly that the closing credits thank a long list of publishing houses. And they really ought to be thanking Ms. Ephron in return. The film’s mix of romance and reading matter is seductive in its own right, providing comfy book-lined settings and people who are what they read and write. When they fall in love, they do it wistfully, as if not quite believing that real life can measure up to really good fiction.
The most important literary outpourings here are those exchanged through E-mail, which makes the film that much more amusingly attuned to its time. The screenplay by Ms. Ephron and her sister, Delia Ephron, adapts Ernst Lubitsch’s 1940 delight, ”The Shop Around the Corner,” to the E-mail age with gratifying ingenuity and with its share of extra observations about how times have changed. The star-crossed correspondents, who in Lubitsch’s film were employees of the same amazingly gracious retail establishment, have been promoted to people who run their own businesses. That makes their stress and loneliness all the more real, to the point where it’s easy to see what drives Joe Fox (Mr. Hanks) and Kathleen Kelly (Ms. Ryan) into the world of cyberflirtation.
By making Kathleen the second-generation owner of a sweet little bookstore for children (titles on the shelves have clearly been chosen with loving care) and Joe the tycoon whose megastore may stomp her out of business, the film gives an additional shrewd angle to its foolproof old story.
It seems that Kathleen and Joe loathe each other in person but are unwittingly close confidants, electronically sharing their innermost thoughts. Should this sound merely like a lot of typing, Ms. Ephron finds plenty of ways to put laptops in bed and otherwise make E-mail visually interesting, starting with a nifty credit sequence that turns all New York into the environment for a video game. In addition, she makes time for shots at the big bookstore as a place that sells ”cheap books and legal addictive stimulants,” in the wry words of Mr. Hanks’s Joe. That’s about as nasty as Joe needs to be under feel-good circumstances like these.
The film wafts through its urban paradise, a litter-free place full of flowers and friendly passers-by, as it watches Kathleen and Joe warily circling each other. Complicating matters are a few too many supporting characters, though many of these get the screenplay’s best lines. (Says Jean Stapleton, as a genteel older friend of Kathleen’s, about an old flame: ”It wasn’t meant to be. He ran Spain.”)
But the film nicely incorporates its minor figures into its sociological milieu, like the two little children who are among Joe’s next of kin. ”Matt is my father’s son,” he explains. ”Annabel is my grandfather’s daughter. We are” pause ”an American family.” Dabney Coleman and John Randolph play the much-married fathers, and at one point three generations of lonely male Foxes find themselves luxuriously ensconced on family boats at the 79th Street Boat Basin.
Ms. Ryan plays her role blithely and credibly this time, with an air of freshness, a minimum of cute fidgeting and a lot of fond chemistry with Mr. Hanks. And he continues to amaze. Once again, he fully inhabits a new role without any obvious actorly behavior, to the point where comparisons to James Stewart (who starred with Margaret Sullavan in the Lubitsch film) really cannot be avoided.
Though he has none of Mr. Stewart’s lanky grace or leading-man patina, the wonderful Mr. Hanks has all the same romantic wistfulness and the same poignant shyness when he learns who Kathleen really is. He shares Mr. Stewart’s lovely way of speaking from the heart. Mr. Hanks also makes fine use of the film’s comic opportunities, as in a scene that has him explaining how ”The Godfather” resembles the I Ching as a guide to life. ”What should I take on vacation?” he asks rhetorically. Advice from ”The Godfather” on this question goes this way: ”Leave the gun, take the cannoli.”
In a film that makes Kathleen’s sensibility clear by having her quote Joni Mitchell, the principals’ erstwhile mates are part of the trenchant local color. Parker Posey plays Joe’s girlfriend, a piranha from the publishing world (”Patricia makes coffee nervous,” Joe remarks), and Greg Kinnear plays a writer for The New York Observer prone to stupefying pronouncements. These characters are as apt a part of the scenery as Dan Davis’s warm, audience-friendly production design.
”You’ve Got Mail” deserves to trigger a revived interest in the late honey-voiced singer Harry Nilsson, whose music on the lighthearted soundtrack provides just the right mix of jauntiness and yearning. Mr. Nilsson’s beautiful music hasn’t figured this prominently in a film since it turned up in ”Midnight Cowboy,” used to quite different effect.
”You’ve Got Mail” is rated PG (Parental guidance suggested). It includes mild profanity and tender clinches.
YOU’VE GOT MAIL
Directed by Nora Ephron; written by Nora Ephron and Delia Ephron, based on the Ernst Lubitsch comedy ”The Shop Around the Corner,” written by Samson Raphaelson from the play ”Parfumerie” by Miklos Laszlo; director of photography, John Lindley; edited by Richard Marks; music by George Fenton; production designer, Dan Davis; produced by Lauren Shuler Donner and Nora Ephron; released by Warner Brothers. Running time: 110 minutes. This film is rated PG.
WITH: Tom Hanks (Joe Fox), Meg Ryan (Kathleen Kelly), Parker Posey (Patricia Eden), Jean Stapleton (Birdie), Dave Chappelle (Kevin Scanlon), Steve Zahn (George Pappas), Greg Kinnear (Frank Navasky), Dabney Coleman (Joe’s father) and John Randolph (Joe’s grandfather).
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