The Cyberpostman Always Writes Twice

Old-fashioned romantic comedies are an endangered species, and in these generally unromantic days it's always a pleasant surprise to find a decent one like Nora Ephron's You've Got Mail.

Ephron, of course, made her bones five and a half years ago with the huge hit Sleepless in Seattle, but since then she's given us a failed screwball farce (1994's Mixed Nuts) and a commercially successful but uninspired supernatural comedy Michael (1996). So it's not surprising that You've Got Mail blatantly tries to re-create the winning formula of Sleepless in Seattle, with the same leads (Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan) in a slightly similar plot.

Sleepless was structured as a long tease: Two people, whom the audience knows are made to be together, have tenuous knowledge of each other but manage not to meet until the film's final scenes. In You've Got Mail the two have shared intimate knowledge as pseudonymous e-mail correspondents; when they meet in real life, neither realizing the other as the beloved correspondent, they develop an intense dislike for one other. The tease here: When will each realize that his or her most hated enemy and most loved friend are one and the same?

The plot will be familiar to film and music buffs; it's an updated version of Ernst Lubitsch's wonderful 1940 comedy The Shop Around the Corner, which was later remade as a film musical (1949's In the Good Old Summertime) and as a (totally different) stage musical (She Loves Me).

The central modern element on which Ephron bases her remake is the Internet (replacing the original's snail mail). Although Kathleen Kelly (Ryan) has a nearly live-in relationship with boyish New York Observer columnist Frank Navasky (Greg Kinnear), she is "cheating" online with someone she only knows by the login "NY152." NY152 is really Joe Fox (Hanks), who likewise sneaks away from his live-in girlfriend Patricia Eden (Parker Posey) to "cheat" with Kelly, whom he knows only as "Shopgirl."

The cheating is emotional and romantic, not sexual. (If there's any hot-chatting going on, Ephron is discreet enough not to show it.) But it's cheating nonetheless. The two have fallen in love by e-mail and are simultaneously eager and terrified about meeting in real life.

By coincidence they do meet one day and actually take a liking to each other ... until Kathleen realizes that Joe is her mortal business enemy. She is the owner-manager of a children's bookstore called the Shop Around the Corner (the name is the film's most blatant internal acknowledgment of its source), which she inherited from her mother. After 40 years it's become a beloved neighborhood landmark, but now it's being threatened by Fox's Books, a chain superstore opening up across the street.

Joe is the mastermind behind the Fox chain, which he runs with his oft-married dad (Dabney Coleman) and even-more-oft-married granddad (John Randolph). Fox's is depicted as one of the current breed of successful, cappuccino-drenched bookstore chains, and in their hearts both Joe and Kathleen know that the Shop Around the Corner is doomed.

Kathleen plays her one trump card: a boyfriend with an influential newspaper column. Frank stirs up public support for her beleaguered little enterprise. (Frank's handling of his obvious journalistic conflict of interest is glossed over, which is a shame. We anticipate Joe's launching of a muckraking counterattack, which never happens.)

The night the two pen pals are to meet, Joe discovers the truth and keeps his identity a secret from Kathleen, leaving her thinking she's been stood up by NY152 and breaking her heart. The rest of the film is the sometimes comic, sometimes poignant dance between the two, as each inevitably heads toward a reconciliation between online and real-life personae.

Much of the success of this type of story rests on the casting. Coming into the film, the leads carry an immense amount of good will, but the script doesn't allow either to be nearly as likable as in their previous pairing. Joe is a bit of a selfish bastard, and Kathleen exhibits a little too much touchy-feely ditziness.

Unlike Lubitsch's film, which took place on a soundstage fantasy of Budapest, You've Got Mail is set in a relatively realistic New York City, which makes some of its less authentic moments more jarring. Kathleen's breakup with Frank is unbelievably mellow. A flashback of Kathleen and her mother comes across as intolerably saccharine. And a scene in which Joe, still Kathleen's mortal enemy, is affectionate toward her in her bedroom registers as downright creepy rather than romantic; in the milieu the film has established, Kathleen would likely grab the nearest blunt object and bash in his noggin.

Despite these flaws, much of You've Got Mail is funny and touching in precisely that old-fashioned way that many of us miss so much. Some of that is a holdover from the Lubitsch film, but much of it comes from Ephron and her collaborators. One has to give Ephron credit for doing so many of the right things in this world of craven and unnecessary remakes. She chose a film that, perfect as it was, at least had some rationale -- the changes wrought in the shift from mail to e-mail -- for being remade. (That said, not much is done to exploit or explore those changes.) Unlike the recent Meet Joe Black, which retold Death Takes a Holiday (1934), Ephron's You've Got Mail gives full credit to the original's writers. And unlike many remakes, most notoriously the recent Psycho, this one isn't simply ripping off the earlier movie; Ephron has taken one of the central ideas and spun a new story around it. She's added Joe's and Kathleen's lovers as characters; she's changed the two principals' relationship form co-workers to business rivals. And by making Joe a mogul she's tossed out the original's concern with the lives of the "little people."

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