In Which We’ve Met Before
There was a period in the late 90’s where the Internet seemed like it could be anything. The moment between the release of the first hypertext web browsers and the dot-com bubble bursting was a time of rapid growth and acclimation. This wasn’t quite the Wild West days, that would be back in the world of usenet and desktops mostly populating college campuses and government buildings, but slightly afterwards. When people anywhere could swoop in and establish a presence online with relative ease for the first time. Aided by the decrease in price for desktops, the release of easier to use operating systems like Window 95, and an economic boom, the Internet moved from novelty to necessity.
But the culture of the Internet was still not yet dominant (the advent of broadband would probably finalize that) and could still be scene as a thing separate from everyday life: the fancies and interests of an average Internet surfer would not always be directly tied into every waking moment of their life. Yes business would be conducted over email, but the technology was seen as something to live in concert with the analog world rather than completely usurping it.
At least that’s what Nora Ephron’s 1998 rom-com You’ve Got Mail presupposes. A bubbly movie that postulates that biggest threat to brick and mortar book movers are big box stores and not the ability to instantly communicate and purchase items online. The time period of it’s release is the only point in history where you could make a big budget comedy off of the premise, “what if people used email and contend with no other part of the Internet.”
As it stands You’ve Got Mail is a pretty exact remake of Ernst Lubitsch’s 1940 film The Shop Around the Corner with a location swap and technology bump. This time Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks play the two tempestuous missive writers who detest each other in real life, but carry on a sweet romance in their anonymous electronic exchanges. Kathleen Kelly (Ryan) owns an independent bookstore that is put into direct competition with Joe Fox’s (Hanks) all consuming chain. As they bicker in real life their romantic affections deepen online, and finally after all the air clears as they leave their current partners and Kathleen’s store closes, they come together with a deep embrace and a promise of a romantic future.
While the film indulges in the usual rom-com tropes (Kelly, who only sells $350,000 of books a year, somehow affords a giant multi-room apartment in Manhattan) there is a deeper fantasy at play in the story. One rooted in the original material being adapted, but heightened by the context in which the film was made: that the Internet can provide a place of instantaneous and free expression and it is almost an entirely good thing. The idea that anyone can unshackle their private and public life and exist in a place where their true selves can properly engage with the world around them. Where expectation and experience melt away in the moment of direct and quick communication.
In fact the grand fantasy of the Internet rests in this idea. That community and relationships could be built and maintained through the honest expression of anonymity. The personas we adopt online are not a mere façade, but a truer expression of ourselves that our day-to-day lives don’t allow. In You’ve Got Mail this is presented as the ultimate expression of love at the time. The fact that Fox and Kelly have to sneak their web letters behind their Luddite partners to act more freely; the stresses of business and disapproval of partners disappearing in the soft glow of the laptop monitor.
Unfortunately the film is so of the moment that it can only capture the experience as historical oddity. The last twenty years have shown us that this generosity and expression will consistently be crushed by bad actors at both the corporate and individual level. That anonymity and instant feedback can create loops of hate and fear, and this ability has only upped the level of graft being committed in the world.
But as history You’ve Got Mail is quite delightful. Positioned in that perfect New York bubble of post 70s/80s hell scape and pre 9/11 optimism. Where the only bad thing happening to the city was cleaning up of Times Square. Where a person can afford an apartment for $450 a month, and a cool trendy kid fears moving to Brooklyn. A world where the idea of a department store being the biggest threat independent businesses was a reality. We might scoff from our current vantage point, but the dream of the 90s vibrates through every frame of this movie. The world is opened and decent, and technology can provide an exciting way forward.
Amusing in retrospect is how this technology is the silent assassin in the whole affair. Yes the power of email may have brought these two together, but the existence of online marketplaces will be their ultimate downfall. Not once is Amazon or eBay mentioned, but from the future they haunt the affair like specters. Kelly may worry about Fox’s Borders like store (complete with a trendy coffee shop and large cushioned chairs) but the type of business Fox runs would be dead in a mere decade. Not once in the movie is business conducted online, no the Internet is the realm of the purely personal in Ephron’s vision of 1998.
It’s also odd that no other aspect of the Internet is engaged with at all. We are treated to whirring modems and AOL login screens, but nothing else. It might be the limitations of Hollywood stalwarts going up against technology, or just another component of the clear dream of talking to someone online and having it go perfectly. This isn’t really an issue, just a side effect of the time and place when the move was made.
What the film kind of whiffs is actually replicating the story of Shop Around Corner. The contours of the plot are basically the same, but with some tweaks that now seem damaging and unfortunate to the frothy romance. One is the simple fact that Ephron decided to make Kelly and Fox direct competitors instead of merely annoyed IRL acquaintances. By the end of film Fox is directly responsible for the closing of Kelly’s store, but this doesn’t seem to be a real impedance to their romance. All it takes is for Hanks to turn on the charm and lay into the insight he gleamed about Kelly from both of their anonymous romance.
Another bummer is the way it treats the leads partners at the beginning of the film. Kelly is with Frank (Greg Kinnear) and Fox is with Patricia (Parker Posey), both of these characters are grating and out of place, and only exist to be turned out later. In a film built on charms and sweetness they feel like an unneeded bitter pill, people for whom the audience can point and laugh at their follies. They add a sort of Luddite angle for the story to bounce off of, but in a way that feels like the construction of a perfect straw man. Frank frequently points to technology as the downfall of society, even going as far as to blame computer solitaire for this defeat, but never grows as a person, and instead falls further into his particular obsessions and interests.
These sour notes are balanced a bit by Hanks and Ryan’s verve and chemistry. They ping well off each other, and are both allowed a fairly wide breadth of emotional experiences. They can be funny and biting, while also being honest and expressive. It’s also interesting that this was the last time Hanks did a straight comedy as a leading man, and there is a barrel of fun to be had from him just being a goofy handsome guy on screen.
You’ve Got Mail is a warm bath of a movie. Nice, but inessential. That the heart of the story relies on so much of the specific tech of the time is why it lives on in the cultural imagination. A film about the mundane world of email can bloom into a thorough romance, a place where the dream of the 90s still thrived with only minor breaks. In the end it still remains a dream. A realm where the Internet is an unrelenting good, New York had affordable apartments, and two bookish people can fall in love despite one destroying the other’s business.
Odds and Ends
- This is the third and final collaboration between Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks, but my favorite will always be the surreal comedic fantasy of Joe Versus the Volcano, which falls just outside the time frame of this series.
- Rom-coms were a huge business back in the 90s. So much so that You’ve Got Mail starts with an elaborate CG zoom into a computer that then recreates New York in blocky structures. Demonstrates how much money you could blow on this kind of stuff.
- You’ve Got Mail serves as a perfect endpoint for Romance Month as it both employs The Cranberries’ “Dreams” (last heard in Chungking Express) and has a bit part played by Steve Zahn (last seen in Reality Bites).
Next week begins Matrix Month as I recount some major projects that helped pave the way for 20th anniversary of The Matrix. We begin with Keanu Reeves first trip to cyberspace in 1995’s Johnny Mnemonic.